HC Deb 14 January 1999 vol 323 cc441-57 12.30 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Will the Leader of the House tell 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 18 JANUARY—Opposition Day [3rd Allotted Day]

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "Rationing in the NHS", followed by a debate entitled "Pensioners and Dividend Tax Credits". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

TUESDAY 19 JANUARY—Consideration in Committee of the Greater London Authority Bill.

WEDNESDAY 20 JANUARY—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the whole House of the Greater London Authority Bill.

THURSDAY 21 JANUARY—Remaining stages of the Road Traffic (NHS Charges) Bill.

Second Reading of the Scottish Enterprise Bill.

FRIDAY 22 JANUARY—The House will not be sitting.

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

MONDAY 25 JANUARY—Second Reading of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill.

TUESDAY 26 JANUARY—Opposition Day [4th Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, subject to be announced.

WEDNESDAY 27 JANUARY—Until 2 O'clock there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Second Reading of the Tax Credits Bill.

THURSDAY 28 JANUARY—Motions on the Social Security Benefits Up-Rating Order, The Social Security (Contributions) (Re-Rating and National Insurance Fund Payments) Order and The Guaranteed Minimum Pensions Increase Order.

FRIDAY 29 JANUARY—The House will not be sitting.

Sir George Young

As we meet today for the first time on a Thursday morning, as an experiment, can the House be assured that the new arrangements will be monitored by the Modernisation Committee, to help us to decide whether the experiment should be made permanent? Part of the Government's modernisation package was a constituency week in February. Will the Leader of the House tell us what has happened to that?

On House of Lords reform, can the Leader of the House confirm press speculation that the Bill will be published next week; will the White Paper be available in good time for the Second Reading debate; and will there be a statement to the House on the setting up of any royal commission on the constitution? Finally in relation to the House of Lords, I have asked on many occasions whether all the stages of the constitutional Bill could be taken on the Floor of the House. I have had no satisfaction, and the time has come for the Leader of the House to give a clear assurance that that convention will be respected.

On the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill, will the Leader of the House confirm that the key issues of conscience on the age of consent will be taken on the Floor of the House, and on a free vote?

Finally, may we have a debate in Government time on benefit fraud, to clarify the confusion that has arisen from certain assurances about resources given by Ministers on Monday which have been challenged both by local authorities and by Benefits Agency investigators?

Mrs. Beckett

I can confirm that it was quite explicit that the experiment—of which the first day is today—was indeed an experiment. The monitoring will be a matter for the Modernisation Committee, but in relation to conclusions, I should like to point out delicately to the right hon. Gentleman that, as we are only hours into the first day, it is a little early to worry about conclusions, although the House will rightly want to consider how we proceed on the matter.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked—I did not quite catch his question as someone was murmuring in my ear—about a potential non-sitting week in February. I remind him that I said during our debate about the experiment that I was not able to give an assurance that it would be possible to find time in the present Session. The Government are mindful of hon. Members' wishes to have a clear picture of the path of Government business and debates and consideration in the House in the months ahead, and to receive notice of when decisions may be made. However, the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate that the Government face a great deal of heavy business at present and that this part of the Session has barely begun. I cannot, therefore, at present confirm that we will feel able to put aside time in this Session, although we shall obviously keep the situation under review.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the handling of legislation to reform the House of Lords. The Government hope to publish the Bill and the White Paper next week—so, yes, we intend to provide proper time for hon. Members to study both the White Paper and the Bill. As the right hon. Gentleman said, he has raised previously the issue of whether all the Bill's proceedings should be taken on the Floor of the House. I have said before that the Government intend to respect normal conventions and that the matter will be discussed through the usual channels. That remains our position. The right hon. Gentleman need not feel the unease that he expresses.

The right hon. Gentleman also referred to the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill. That matter can be discussed through the usual channels, but the Government at least intend to recognise the fact that it is in some ways a matter of conscience. I anticipate that that recognition will underlie our decision, but we shall discuss the matter through the usual channels.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked me to find time for a debate on benefit fraud, consequent on earlier exchanges. I. am not immediately familiar, with those exchanges, but I shall undertake to draw the right hon. Gentleman's observations to the attention of the relevant Ministers. I cannot, however, undertake to find time for that debate in the near future.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

As chairman of the all-party Latin America group, I wish to know whether there will be a statement next week—possibly froni a Treasury Minister—about the implications of the bank crisis in Brazil. Furthermore, will there be a statement before my Adjournment debate on Monday 25 January about the French proposals in relation to Iraq and the lifting of sanctions? Will my right hon. Friend and her colleagues look favourably at my ten-minute Bill, the Military Action Against Iraq (Parliamentary Approval) Bill, which asks simply that there be a formal vote in the House of Commons regarding any further bombing of Iraq and that any such action be supported by a two-thirds majority?

Mrs. Beckett

I recognise the concern that my hon. Friend has expressed about events in Brazil and I understand his wish for that issue to be raised with Treasury Ministers should matters develop in a damaging direction. I understand that my right and hon. Friends, together with others in the international community, are doing all that they can to ensure that there is no crisis in Brazil of the kind that might lead to demands for a statement. My hon. Friend will have seen that my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury is on the Front Bench, and she will certainly bring his views to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Chancellor.

My hon. Friend asked also for a debate about the French proposals regarding sanctions. That matter is being considered internationally and my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary has discussed it with the French Foreign Minister. We are looking carefully at those proposals, although I am sure that my hon. Friend appreciates that they raise other difficult issues. It is not clear that we shall be able to make a statement on those matters before my hon. Friend seeks to raise them again.

My hon. Friend also asked about his ten-minute Bill. I take his point on that, but the Government strove to keep the House as fully informed as we possibly could about how matters were handled, and we continue to do so. I am sure that my hon. Friend, like all Members, while wanting the Government to keep the House fully abreast of events, would not want us to do so in a way that would jeopardise our armed forces.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

First, when does the Leader of the House expect the Government to make proposals for the implementation of the recommendations of the Neill committee on the funding of political parties? What arrangements will be made for the House to be kept informed and to have an opportunity to debate those proposals?

Secondly, will the right hon. Lady arrange for the Foreign Secretary to make a statement next week on the serious breakdown of confidence between the European Parliament and the European Commission, which touches the interests of the country and the House? She will have noted that the Liberal Democrat Members of the European Parliament and their group are the only people to resist the Commission's attempts to blackmail the Parliament into submission and that the Socialist and Conservative groups are now split and have been bought off.

Mr. Iain Duncan Smith (Chingford and Woodford Green)

The Liberal Democrat group is not big enough to split.

Mr. Tyler

It is bigger than the hon. Gentleman perhaps realises. Can we have an urgent statement that includes Government proposals for improving accountability in the European Union?

Thirdly, the Leader of the House may recollect that in July I asked her predecessor about proposals to charge our constituents and others who visit the House during the summer recess. I raised that issue again in a debate on 16 December, and there is now early-day motion 145. [That this House is opposed to the introduction of charges for the admission of visitors to the Palace of Westminster.] I understand that the other place has decided that it would be inappropriate to restrict by the considerable charge of £6 or £7 our constituents' access to Parliament. Will the Leader of the House urgently consider the issue and give the House an opportunity to debate it before any decision is made?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not in a position to tell the hon. Gentleman how speedily the matters on the Neill report will proceed. I shall find out whether it is possible to tell him and, if necessary, write to him and copy my reply to other hon. Members.

The hon. Gentleman referred to events in the European Parliament. He made a passing comment of enlightenment to a Conservative Member, and he is correct to say that the European Parliament group to which the Liberal Democrats belong is large. However, I utterly reject, as most other hon. Members will, his suggestion that only the Liberal Democrat MEPs and their group are concerned about the management of affairs in Europe or about fraud. The Christian Democrat group and the Socialist group have made it plain that there is a need for strong measures to improve the financial management of resources in the European Union, which, along with the need for close scrutiny, I understand to be the burden of the resolution that has been carried.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's remarks about the significance of the Liberal Democrats' group being the only one to vote, I presume, for the dismissal of the Commission, that suggests that it is the only group in the European Parliament irresponsible enough to have done so. He ought to bear that in mind.

I cannot read my notes. The hon. Gentleman referred to Government accountability on another issue. Will he refresh my memory as to what it was?

Mr. Tyler


Mrs. Beckett

Fine. That is a genuinely difficult issue because every hon. Member would be concerned at the notion that access to the House would not be free to our constituents. However, the request that was made and is being considered by the relevant House Committees—it has not yet reached the House of Commons Commission—related to the building being open during the recess when it is anticipated that large groups may wish to tour. Obviously, this brings costs to both Houses, and I think that the Accommodation and Works Committee was striving to balance the costs incurred in opening the building more fully to visitors with the question of access. It is a difficult issue, which I understand will arouse great sensitivities in this House as in another place. The proposal has not yet come before the Commission. No decision has yet been taken, but I have taken note of views already expressed to me from all parts of the House.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I am wholly opposed to charges in any circumstances.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the deep concern about the fact that while we are waiting for the outcome of the inquiry into the circumstances of Stephen Lawrence's death and what occurred afterwards, the one police officer who was to have faced disciplinary charges is taking early retirement? Does she not think that we should have a statement? Is my right hon. Friend further aware of the deep distress felt first and foremost by Stephen Lawrence's parents and of the general feeling that the police officers who acted wholly inappropriately are escaping any form of disciplinary hearing? What has happened in this case—the previous Government refused to take any action, but the present Home Secretary of course set up the inquiry in this Parliament—remains a cause of great and continuing concern.

Mrs. Beckett

First, I thank my hon. Friend for reinforcing so promptly my remarks to the effect that there is clearly concern among all parties about charging for entry to Parliament.

Secondly, of course, the whole House understands and sympathises with the sense of frustration felt by the Lawrence family about the long-term effects of the way in which the tragic attack on Stephen Lawrence was handled. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will be considering the matter in the light of Sir William Macpherson' s report. I know that my hon. Friend will be looking for opportunities to raise this matter in a variety of ways and at some length, and Home Office questions are to be held on Monday.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

When the Leader of the House constructively answered my question on 3 December about the procedural consequences of devolution, she made no reference to her own memorandum dated 24 November. Although the Government have now postponed the first operational date for the Northern Ireland Assembly from 1 February to 11 March, time remains extremely short. Will she confirm that the memorandum went to the Procedure Committee in late November and was not delayed until the middle of December, which is when it first became known to the House at large?

Mrs: Beckett

Frankly, I have to tell the right hon. Gentleman that I cannot quite remember when the memorandum went to the Procedure Committee, but it was certainly some time ago. I did not refer to it when he raised the matter with me because it was in the hands of the Committee; and I understand that it has now been put more fully into the public domain. I am sorry, as I know the Committee will be, if the right hon. Gentleman feels that it has held things up. I cannot quite remember when the memorandum was passed to the Committee—time flies—but if I have anything to add, I shall write to the right hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Eric Illsley (Barnsley, Central)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange an early debate on millennium compliance, as the millennium is now fast approaching and in view of the fears expressed by TaskForce 2000 that some systems will simply not be ready in time? May we have an early debate so that we can identify any problems that remain?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot promise my hon. Friend such a debate in the near future. However, it is not only TaskForce 2000 which has been dealing with such matters—it operated under the previous Government—as a range of organisations, including Action 2000, is now doing the same and is continually seeking to ensure that as many people as possible, especially those involved in small and medium-sized businesses, begin to tackle the problem. It would be quite a task to try to identify all the areas that might not be completely ready. I do not think that anyone in any organisation anywhere in the world will be able to say with absolute confidence that he is wholly ready. As this matter is studied more fully and in greater depth, the dimensions of the potential sources of difficulty unwind and the greater the problem seems to be.

It would be for the good of all, nationally and internationally, if everyone in public life raised these matters with their local authority, with small businesses in their constituencies and with all those with whom they come into contact. The first step is to prioritise the action that needs to be taken, to take as much of that action as possible, and for people to make contingency plans for unforeseen developments.

Sir David Madel (South-West Bedfordshire)

As a former Minister in the Department of Education and Science, the right hon. Lady has always taken an interest in the education service. She will know of the excellent work of the Office for Standards in Education in strengthening and supporting the teaching profession. However, Ministers in the Department for Education and Employment seem silent on this matter. Could we have a clear statement next week? Do the Government and the DFEE support Ofsted and the chief inspector in their valuable work?

Mrs. Beckett

Frankly, I am a little surprised by the hon. Gentleman's question, especially as we have just had education questions. The Government work with Ofsted. We want everything possible to be done to raise standards. That is the task of Ofsted, and in that sense we work well together.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

Has the Leader of the House seen the press reports that suggest that the Government are considering the introduction of regional Committees? Will she comment on that? Twice last year, I asked my right hon. Friend's predecessor to recall the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs, which, although it has not met since 1978, could be recalled tomorrow. At its first meeting, it could discuss the economic opportunities facing north-east England.

Mrs. Beckett

We are very keen to recognise the need to take account of the regional dimension in England. We are conscious of the view held by many hon. Members that the interests of the English regions have to some extent been overlooked in recent years. I intend, I hope in the very near future, to put some proposals before the Modernisation Committee on the use of procedures of the House that allow for a Standing Committee on the English regions. It may not b+9e in the form implied by my hon. Friend's question, but it would be in a form that would, I hope, be of assistance to the House.

Mr. Charles Wardle (Bexhill and Battle)

The debate to follow is about public accounts and the National Audit Office. Will the right hon. Lady find time in the near future for a debate on the work of the Audit Commission, particularly its assessment of county councils? Is she aware that East Sussex county council pays private sector residential care homes less than any other county council? It pays £12 per week per resident less than the Department of Social Security's recommended rates, because its social services department subsidises its own more costly beds to the disadvantage of the private sector. Is that an appropriate subject to raise in a debate on the Audit Commission?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman would be able to raise that matter in a debate on the Audit Commission, but I cannot find time for that in the near future. I hear what he says, and I was not aware of the issue. As I understand it, the council is controlled by the hon. Gentleman's party, so he could use other means to raise the matter.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May I again ask my right hon. Friend for a debate on the lending practices of the banks? In particular, we should discuss the outrageous conduct of the National Westminster Bank and Lombard Banking, including the way in which they have treated the Tanning Shop franchisees nationally. That subject is known to hon. Members. When we finally have that debate, I shall be able to argue the case for Mr. Robert Munn and Mr. Peter Stern to be questioned about what really happened inside National Westminster Bank and about the outrageous and almost dishonest treatment of many of the bank's clients.

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of my hon. Friend's great concerns about this matter. As he said, he has raised the issue with me before and I understand the anxieties that he has expressed. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in the near future, but I recognise that it is a matter that he may continue to raise

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

On Monday, my hon. Friend the Member for Gainsborough (Mr. Leigh) and I asked the Under-Secretary of State for Social Security, the hon. Member for Wallasey (Angela Eagle), certain questions about the adequacy of resources for pursuing benefit fraud, and for an undertaking that there were absolutely no cuts taking place in that matter. In view of the cases that have been cited in three eminent newspapers this week, will the Leader of the House ask the Minister to come back to the House with an explanation for a reply that was at best misleading but potentially baseless?

Mrs. Beckett

That matter was raised earlier and I said then that I was not aware of the concerns mentioned by Conservative Members. I will draw those concerns to the attention of the relevant Department. All I would say is that it is sometimes dangerous to place too much reliance on stories that appear in newspapers.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on the successful launch of the euro so that the House can have an opportunity to discuss the implications for our economy over the next three or four years, as well as the continuing bitter divisions and splits that still exist within the Conservative party on that issue?

Mrs. Beckett

I greatly respect the interest that my hon. Friend has taken in these matters over many years. However, I believe that the divisions in the Conservative party are diminishing as the rampant anti-Europeans take control. I agree with my hon. Friend that the euro has been launched successfully. He will recall, as I do, the many occasions on which the idiots on the Conservative Benches said that it would never happen. [HON. MEMBERS: "Withdraw!"] I spoke in the heat of the moment, Madam Speaker; of course I withdraw that comment. I shall seek other words to describe my concerns. The folly of what was said does not cast light on the wisdom of the hon. Members who have made such remarks.

Madam Speaker

I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for her gracious remarks.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

This week, Kent Members had a briefing from Kent police, who have made it abundantly clear that the public perception that the bootlegging that goes on across the Channel is causing crime is grossly understated and that, in fact, major crime syndicates are moving into Kent and changing the whole nature of the crime prevention policy. Can we have a debate on that serious issue from a Government who, after all, took office on the basis of being tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime? This is one of the most blatant causes of crime and it goes a great deal wider than any benefit that the Treasury might be deriving from a difference in duty.

Mrs. Beckett

I share the concern expressed by the hon. Gentleman—as I am sure do hon. Members in all parts of the House—at the way in which that fraud is being exacerbated and offering an opportunity for crime. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will take an opportunity to raise those concerns with Treasury Ministers. However, he will know that it is not a simple matter to make major changes in the structure of our taxes and duties. Indeed, Conservative Members are usually calling on the Government to be careful about how we do such things. There is certainly great consciousness of some of the difficulties that are arising and the Government keep the matter under active consideration.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

The BBC has told us today that we are entering a new phase in the Lib-Lab deal with the meeting later today of the joint consultative committee with the Liberal Democrats to discuss foreign and defence policy. Given that the papers will be classified and denied to Labour Members and the fact that we are all becoming weary of the endless speculation about Lib-Labbery, where it will take us and what precisely is in the Prime Minister's mind—[Interruption.] I say this in all seriousness—will the Leader of the House prevail on the Prime Minister to make a statement to the House next week on the Lib-Lab deal, the constitutional implications and precisely where it is all leading us?

Mrs. Beckett

I am very clear, as I think that all hon. Members are very clear, about what is in the Prime Minister's mind—to continue making successful progress on the Government's policies, which have led, for example, to 100,000 children in smaller classes, 200,000 people taking advantage of the new deal and the creation of 500,000 new jobs since the Government came to power. My hon. Friend asks about the use of a Committee to discuss various issues with the Liberal Democrats. Yes, it is intended that that group will consider some foreign and security policy issues, along the lines of previous discussions on constitutional matters on which there is genuinely common ground and agreement. It is sensible for people to work together on such issues. My hon. Friend has attended business questions today and will have noticed that there are a great many issues on which the Government and the Liberal Democrats diverge, as I am sure that Liberal Democrat Members will be happy to confirm.

Mr. John M. Taylor (Solihull)

May we have a reprint of the list of ministerial responsibilities? The current one dates back to October and seems to be showing some signs of attrition. Will she also confirm that the remedy of impeachment is still available to this honourable House?

Mrs. Beckett

I shall certainly draw to the attention of the relevant authorities the hon. Gentleman's request for a reprint of the list of ministerial responsibilities. I shall refrain from commenting on his other remarks, as all sorts of comparisons spring to mind of people misusing such remedies for partisan purposes and doing their country no good in the process.

Mr. David Watts (St. Helens, North)

Following the Government's decision to pay compensation to GCHQ workers, will my right hon. Friend make time in the House for a debate on employment rights? Does she agree that such a debate would give Conservative Members an opportunity to apologise to loyal hard-working people who were sacked for no reason other than that they wanted to be members of a trade union?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I anticipate that, as the Government proceed with their legislative programme, there will indeed be time for a discussion of employment rights. I share his view that the treatment of workers and former workers at GCHQ was shabby and contemptible. I am glad that the Government have had the opportunity to put it right.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

Will the right hon. Lady prevail on her colleagues in the Ministry of Defence to come to the House for a debate on the reasoning behind the closure of the Royal Hospital Haslar? If she cannot do that, will she prevail on her colleagues at the Department of Health to come to the House for a debate on how they will fund and provide adequate health services to cover the population of Greater Portsmouth? There is widespread concern across half a dozen constituencies about the future of health provision in the Greater Portsmouth area.

Mrs. Beckett

Hon. Members will be able to ask questions in Defence Question Time, in just over a week. The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to raise the issue on that and on other occasions with my right hon. and hon. Friends with responsibility for health and defence issues. I cannot promise a special debate on the problems of hospital provision in his area, but he may like to take advantage of the opportunities that arise for hon. Members to apply for Adjournment debates.

Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet)

My right hon. Friend will be well aware that the United Kingdom's assisted area status map is being redrawn. She will also be well aware that, before Christmas, there was a small opportunity for a debate on the subject, although many hon. Members were frustrated in that debate. Will she provide an opportunity as soon as possible for another such debate, so that I can make the point to hon. Members that it is vital for Thanet, which has the third highest unemployment level in England, to retain full assisted area status and objective 2 status? Will she, please, provide that opportunity?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to provide an opportunity for a debate on that in the near future, particularly as we had a debate on it only recently, as my hon. Friend kindly recognised. I understand and share the frustration that is always felt by some hon. Members when there is not time for everyone to be called. However, I am confident that my hon. Friend will seek other opportunities to make his point.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

The Leader of the House may be aware that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has recently begun a nationwide consultation exercise on reform of the common agricultural policy. Does she agree that, to avoid discourtesy to the House, it would be proper for there to be a debate in Government time on the reform package? So far, the Minister has not consulted the House. He is giving the impression in the country that what farmers say will have far more influence than will really be the case. It is time that the House had an opportunity to probe the Minister on that important subject and to give its view on the reforms.

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman is being uncharacteristically ungenerous to my right hon. Friend. It is right, sensible and wise for us to encourage those involved in UK agriculture to put forward their views. I should have thought that the right hon. Gentleman would agree and would play his part in encouraging that.

Mr. Jack

A debate?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course there will be opportunities for Members of Parliament to make their points of view known, but when that debate eventually comes—I cannot promise one in the near future—it will be better informed if those in the industry have had an opportunity to make their points fully. It makes for better government if people are encouraged to put forward their views early in a discussion on reform rather than waiting until Government views have gelled more fully, without the advantage of that input of information and advice. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will encourage the farming industry to respond to my right hon. Friend's appeal.

Mr. Christopher Leslie (Shipley)

Can we have a debate soon about town planning and unitary development plans? I refer in particular to a long-running planning application in my constituency for an outrageous 400 houses at Warren lane, Gilstead in Bingley. The proposal has raised several issues, including whether privatised water companies such as Yorkshire Water can withhold information about drainage networks from local councils on the grounds of commercial confidentiality and the woeful inadequacy of the Conservative Government's town planning legislation, which did not give residents the ability to shape the outcome of local planning decisions properly.

Mrs. Beckett

I sympathise with my hon. Friend's concerns. All hon. Members are conscious of the enormous impact of planning decisions and how fiercely fought they often are locally. My right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions have the issues under consideration and review. I am sure that they will take on board my hon. Friend's comments.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I should like to draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 182 on council tax benefit subsidy limitation: [That this House deplores the unfair anomaly of relatively low income council tax payers subsidising the payment of council tax benefit that is to be introduced by the Government through statutory instrument and the Local Government Bill; condemns the totally unacceptable principle that the poor should subsidise the poorest in this way; regrets that the matter will not be subject to full parliamentary scrutiny; and urges the Government to reconsider this unfair and ill-considered measure.] Early-day motion 150 is similarly about limitation of housing benefit and council rents. Does the right hon. Lady agree that it is important that we should have an opportunity for a proper debate on the Floor of the House about the Government's intention to introduce a new clawback of council tax benefit subsidy? The issue should not be sent to a Committee and dealt with through secondary legislation and regulations. It is a fundamental issue of the poor paying for the poorest. The Conservatives introduced that principle when they were in government. Why are the Labour Government copying them?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes an important point about the handling of local government subsidy matters. I am confident that his concerns are part of the consideration of my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions. However, the House decided that many matters of detail relating to the implementation of Government decisions and the handling of issues such as benefit subsidy should be taken away from the Floor of the House. That decision was taken because it was believed to be for the better management of Government business. I am confident that the hon. Gentleman will have opportunities to raise the issue, but I fear that I cannot promise an early debate.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

May I ask the Leader of the House for a statement on fraud and nepotism in the European Union, so that hon. Members can seek assurances not only about what the Government are doing about such problems with their apparently new-found influence in Europe, but that they will never give up the rebate that was negotiated by that great British patriot, Margaret Thatcher?

Mrs. Beckett

We have made clear from the outset, not only in government but in opposition, our strong opposition to fraud and our concern at incompetence and fraud in the handling of public moneys, particularly in the European Union. It has been made clear repeatedly from the Dispatch Box and everywhere else that the Government have no intention of giving up the rebate. As for the pretence that only the Conservatives defend the interest of the United Kingdom, they may have got the rebate, but they gave up the veto.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Following the pertinent concerns of the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) about the financial crisis in Brazil, will the right hon. Lady grant the House an urgent debate on foreign affairs so that we can discuss that crisis and the associate Mercosur country next door, which is being jeopardised by the Government raising the political temperature there and deterring the inward investment on which it depends? I refer of course to Chile.

Mrs. Beckett

As my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said, the handling of the economy of Brazil is a matter for the Treasury rather than for the Foreign Office, but I repeat what I said earlier: the Government are concerned to ensure that no such crisis arises. As for the hon. Gentleman's later remarks, he will be aware of the House's ruling on matters that are sub judice and I do not propose to respond to his attempts to raise them.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

Will the Leader of the House make a statement to the House next week accepting the kind offer of Mrs. Elizabeth Filkin, the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards, to look into the affairs of Ministers in the same way as she looks into the financial and other affairs of hon. Members? Does she agree that it would be particularly appropriate in the light of recent revelations that the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson), the former Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, accepted a loan from the former Paymaster General of £373,000 which he could not repay, to pay for a house that he could not afford at the time when his Department was looking into the affairs of the former Paymaster General, and that he failed to inform the permanent secretary? Would that not also be appropriate because of the further revelations in The Times today about Lord Donoughue, a Minister in the other place, who was also financially involved with that crook, Robert Maxwell, who robbed the Maxwell pensioners? If the Government are determined to be whiter than white as the Prime Minister once said, would it not be appropriate to accept the offer?

Mrs. Beckett

That was a very long question; indeed, it was more of a dissertation, the core of which was the question whether the Government propose to take up the offer made by the new Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards. Of course it was sensible for Mrs. Filkin to say that she was prepared to take on the matter, but the hon. Lady may or may not be aware that the Neill committee is looking again at how such issues are handled, reassessing what we have learnt from experience. It is a matter of consideration and judgment. I am not persuaded that it is quite the right way to handle those matters for the parliamentary commissioner to take on that role—[Interruption.] Perhaps the right hon. Member for Bracknell (Mr. MacKay) could stop heckling, as I do not think his wife needs any support from him.

In my view, different issues can arise involving the conduct of Ministers and what happens within Departments that it might not be right for the parliamentary commissioner to explore. It is genuinely a matter that needs to be considered without the need for knee-jerk and immediate results. I have some reservations about whether it is Mrs. Filkin's role, although the matter will be examined.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will be aware that, as a result of the changed timings of Thursday sittings, there will be a motion tonight to change the sitting next week of the Northern Ireland Grand Committee. Could she explore why an understanding that the Northern Ireland Grand Committee would meet at least once or twice in Northern Ireland last year was not kept up—and will not be kept up this year unless there is a change? Is it because 25 Labour Members of Parliament do not want to travel there, or is there some other reason?

Mrs. Beckett

I was not aware of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman has raised. If there is a feeling that an undertaking that the Grand Committee should meet in different places has not yet been fulfilled, that will be of concern to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I undertake to draw the matter to her attention, and I will write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

As a follow-up to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice), may I say that it is not true that the Liberal Democrats agree with the Labour party about all constitutional issues? There are differences between us on devolution, there is a very stark difference about what is to happen in the House of Lords after the first stage, there are without doubt differences on defence and there are certainly differences on foreign policy. Frankly, some of us are fed up to the back teeth with the Liberals wanting to have their cake and to eat it. It is high time that a message was passed to the Prime Minister, or anybody else, that it is time to put a stop to it. I am old enough to remember the Lib-Lab pact leading up to 1978, and it ended in tears. The Liberals ratted when it got too hot, because they could not stand the heat in the kitchen. We do not want a repeat performance—sack the lot of them.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I might not please you, Madam Speaker, if I were to venture to comment on many of my hon. Friend's points. I accept that there are issues—particularly constitutional issues—on which the Liberal Democrats and ourselves do not see eye to eye. What I intended to say earlier was that, where there was agreement, it was sensible for that to be recognised. However, I fully understand that there are many areas where there is not agreement—including on some of the issues to which my hon. Friend referred.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Will the Leader of the House consider arranging for a statement next week by the Minister for the Cabinet Office on the lack of progress towards the introduction of open government legislation and, in particular, whether it is still intended that such legislation should include protection for people who blow the whistle on secret abuses, bearing in mind the very sad case of Mr. Charlie Whelan, who has recently lost his job merely for blowing the whistle on secret abuses by two of the Prime Minister's Cabinet cronies?

Mrs. Beckett

The Government have every intention of producing for scrutiny our proposals about freedom of information, and we are giving careful consideration to how they can be effective. As for Mr. Charlie Whelan, I thought that the one thing that nobody had ever accused him of was operating in secret.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an early statement by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, which would enable him to commit the Government to publishing a White Paper on the implications for our democracy of possible British entry to the European single currency?

In that context, is the right hon. Lady aware of the erroneous claim made last night by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury that the Chancellor's statement to the House on 27 October 1997 had addressed the constitutional issues? Will she confirm that it did nothing of the kind, but simply stated that there were constitutional issues but no constitutional bar? Does she agree that a White Paper dealing with the role of central banks, the power of national Parliaments, the health of our democracy in the future and related issues is the very least that we should guarantee our constituents?

Mrs. Beckett

The Opposition raise that issue continually, and I see no reason why we should provide time for yet a further debate on it in the near future. I have no doubt that there will be many opportunities for the publication of relevant Government documents at the right stage, and perhaps, in the fulness of time, even a White Paper; but I fear that I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman a White Paper, a debate or anything else next week.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

May I return to the question put by my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove (Miss Kirkbride)? Does the Leader of the House recall that, only a few weeks ago, she told the House that we should trust the then Secretary of State for Trade and Industry to be able to make his own correct judgments about conflicts of interests, and potential conflicts of interests? In the light of events, does the right hon. Lady not feel rather let down? Does she not feel that it would be helpful to the Neill Committee, the Government and the House to have an early debate on ministerial accountability, and the fact that, at present, Ministers are the sole judges of whether conflicts of interest exist? As my hon. Friend the Member for Bromsgrove pointed out, the issue is made more pertinent by revelations about the involvement of a junior agriculture Minister with the Maxwell empire.

Mrs. Beckett

I think that my right hon. Friend the Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) has eminently justified what I said about his recognising where conflicts of interests arose. He has acknowledged that he made a mistake, and he has paid the price—unlike Ministers in the last Government.

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

Last week, the Government published figures showing that the tuberculosis outbreak in our cattle herds is still exploding, and is now doing so at an even faster rate. May we have a debate on that as a matter of urgency, so that the Minister can explain to the House why, just over a year after the Krebs report, only six of Professor Krebs's proposed 30 study areas have been identified, and the study has already been suspended in the case of two of those six because of a lack of resources? That means that the British tuberculosis-free status is now in jeopardy, as are hundreds of farmers' livelihoods—especially given the fact that the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has said repeatedly that this is a crisis second only to the BSE crisis.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot promise a debate in the near future, but I am aware of the concern in the industry. Concern has also been expressed in the Ministry, and I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's comments to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

The right hon. Lady was unable to find time for a debate on bank lending practices, but might she find time for a debate on building society lending practices? Would that not give us an opportunity to understand how the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) was able to sign a Britannia building society application form—happily, I have a copy with me—on which he certified that he had not arranged any other loan in connection with the property? As we now know, he had arranged a loan from the former Paymaster General. Would not the debate enable us to understand why the right hon. Gentleman was able to do that, given that, if an ordinary member of the public had engaged in such a practice, it would probably have been referred to the police?

Mrs. Beckett


Mr. Bernard Jenkin (North Essex)

May I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to a matter that should concern the House, but is somewhat reminiscent of a Monty Python sketch involving a skeleton and a telephone box? I have here a letter from the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, dated 5 January, which opens with the sentence Thank you for your letter of 21 May to Gordon Brown. Does the right hon. Lady suppose that my correspondence fell into a deed box and was sent off to Guernsey during the period in question? Will she undertake to mount an informal inquiry into what is happening to correspondence in Her Majesty's Treasury? This may well be the record example to date, but it is by no means the only example of delayed correspondence relating to our constituents and to Treasury matters.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that, as I do not remember the sketch to which the hon. Gentleman referred, the allusion was somewhat lost on me. I do, however, understand his concern if there is delay in the handling of correspondence, and I shall draw his remarks to the attention of the relevant Ministers.

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman realises, the Treasury receives an enormous amount of correspondence. While no one could possibly think it satisfactory that he, or his constituent, had to wait so long for a reply, sometimes things slip through the net.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Would it be possible for the Leader of the House to arrange for a Welsh Office Minister to wind up the debate that we are shortly to have on national health service rationing, because three issues have recently been raised in the Welsh media? Age rationing is going on in hospitals in Wales. The lengthening time that junior doctors now have to work in Welsh hospitals is appalling and, even using the fiddled figures of the Government, there are 3,000 more people on waiting lists than at the time of the last general election.

The important point is that people are now waiting longer than before when they finally get on to the waiting list. At the general election, they were told that things could only get better, but, for many patients and people wanting medical help in Wales, things have got worse.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is right in identifying that there will be a debate on health service matters in the near future, when it will be possible for those who catch your eye, Madam Speaker, to raise those issues.

Obviously, who opens and winds up particular debates is a matter for consideration. It is not for me to give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. I am sure that his remarks have been heard.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

May I ask the right hon. Lady to clarify one point about the royal commission on the House of Lords? Can she guarantee that there will be an oral statement in the House when the royal commission is set up? We would expect such a statement and the opportunity to question whoever makes it.

Can the right hon. Lady clarify, or say when she expects to be able to clarify, the position regarding the February week? We voted against the package that she put before the House before Christmas, but we believe that the House has the right to know whether we are to have that week. If we are not to have it, can she please tell us whether we shall at least have part of it?

Finally, in view of what the right hon. Lady said to the hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), can she give an undertaking to him and to me that, as we agree with her on PR, we can be invited to join the Cabinet Committee to discuss it?

Mrs. Beckett

Picking up on the hon. Gentleman's last point first, I do not think that anyone is suggesting that that is a feature of discussions at present, but I hear what he says.

The hon. Gentleman asks me to clarify the issue about the February week. I cannot give him any further clarification than I have already given. In the debate close to Christmas, when the matter was raised, I made it plain that it might not be possible to make such an arrangement this year, but that the Government would keep the matter under review, depending on the progress of business.

I had not intended to make the following point—indeed, I refrained from making it before—but I have noticed that all the hon. Members who have so far approached me to ask for certainty—and I understand that certainty is important to hon. Members—about whether that week will be provided, are Members who voted against our having it.

The hon. Gentleman asks me about a statement on the royal commission. It would be as well if we undertook to keep those matters under review through the usual channels. Although I fully understand and appreciate the wish of the House to be properly informed, he may find that we are able to deal with the matter in a way that may not call for a specific statement when the commission is set up, so we could perhaps undertake to keep the matter under review through the usual channels. There is no intention to deprive the House of any opportunity to comment as fully as it would wish on those matters.

Mr. Wardle

On a point of order, Madam Speaker. In her reply to me during business questions, the Leader of the House, I think inadvertently, suggested that East Sussex county council is under Conservative control. I can understand why she should think that that should be so, and I am sure that it will be the case before long, but, at present, it is not the case.

Mrs. Beckett

I apologise. I was misinformed. I did not wish to misinform the House.