HC Deb 28 January 1999 vol 324 cc473-83 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 1 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the House of Lords Bill.

TUESDAY 2 FEBRUARY—Conclusion of Second Reading of the House of Lords Bill.

WEDNESDAY 3 FEBRUARY—Until 2 o'clock there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition Day [5th Allotted Day].

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate on the Government's record on pensions, followed by a debate on planning and the green belt. Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

THURSDAY 4 FEBRUARY—Motion on the Police Grant report (England and Wales).

Motions on the English Revenue Support Grant Reports.

FRIDAY 5 FEBRUARY—The House will not be sitting. The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

MONDAY 8 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the Social Security Contributions (Transfer of Functions, etc) Bill [Lords].

TUESDAY 9 FEBRUARY—Second Reading of the Employment Relations Bill.

WEDNESDAY 10 FEBRUARY—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Until about 7 o'clock, consideration in Committee of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Bill.

Remaining stages of the Water Industry Bill.

THURSDAY 11 FEBRUARY—Until 4 o'clock, motions on the Welsh Revenue Support Grant reports.

Motions on the Local Government Finance (Scotland) Order and the Housing Support Grant (Scotland) Order.

Motions on the Scotland Act 1998 (Transitional and Transitory Provisions (Finance) Order and the Scotland Act 1998 (Transitional and Transitory Provisions) (Appropriations) Order.

FRIDAY 12 FEBRUARY—The House will not be sitting.

Hon. Members may have heard my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer announce that he will make his Budget statement on Tuesday 9 March. I can also announce that a Committee of the House will scrutinise the draft Food Standards Bill which was published yesterday, along the lines set out in the Modernisation Committee's first report in the last Session. A Committee will be specially established for the purpose. It has been proposed that it will be established next week, and asked to report by the end of March.

As I have said on other occasions, I did not think that it would be possible in the current Session fully to meet the recommendation of the Modernisation Committee's report on the parliamentary calendar that there should be a non-sitting or constituency week in mid-February; but, in an endeavour to meet the spirit of the recommendation, it will be proposed—subject to the progress of business, and to agreement through the usual channels—that the House should adjourn at the end of business on Tuesday 16 February, until Monday 22 February.

Sir George Young

I thank the Leader of the House for giving us next week's business and an indication of business in the following week, and for her other announcements.

Can we be assured that the House will have an opportunity to debate Kosovo next week if the issue of NATO military action arises? Can the right hon. Lady tell us when the Government will announce their decisions on the pay review board's recommendations? Can she ensure that next week we shall have answers from the Chancellor to questions about arrangements for his travel to and in the far east—questions answered by every other Cabinet Minister but which the Chancellor has unreasonably refused to answer?

Finally, may we have a debate on the constitutional propriety of members of a Select Committee seeking to hold Ministers to account, while at the same time engaging in collaborative discussions with those very Ministers?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot promise the right hon. Gentleman a debate next week on Kosovo, but I can assure him that the Government keep under review issues of such importance as Kosovo. I will bear his observations in mind. He asked me when we expect to announce the results of the pay review bodies. They will be announced in due course and in the normal way. He also asked me about answers from the Chancellor of the Exchequer. My understanding is that the Chancellor has answered questions on matters that have been put to him in line with normal rules of ministerial accountability.

Finally, the right hon. Gentleman asked me about the propriety of engaging in debate and relationships within Select Committees in varying circumstances. I think that all hon. Members always engage with propriety in their discussions and there are, of course, many forums in which those discussions take place.

Mr. John McWilliam (Blaydon)

Has my right hon. Friend had the opportunity to speak to the Foreign Secretary about the serious situation that is developing in Gibraltar following the arrests of fishermen with their well named trawler La Pirana; the blockade threatened by Spanish fishermen on the Gibraltar land border; and the statement, apparently by the Spanish Foreign Secretary, that he regards Gibraltar and its people as economic parasites? Will we have an opportunity to debate that next week if the situation worsens?

Mrs. Beckett

I must concede that I was not aware of the detail of the issues that have been raised by my hon. Friend. Obviously, we always try to preserve good relations with all our allies and in all circumstances, but I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary will take heed of my hon. Friend's comments.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

I thank the Leader of the House for her announcement about the constituency days, if not a constituency week. I am sure that that will be welcome.

I draw the right hon. Lady's attention to early-day motion 162.

[That this House welcomes the competition provided by mutual organisations in the financial services sector as demonstrated by three independent end of year surveys which show that building societies provide cheaper mortgages and better performing TESSAs; believes that choice and diversity in the financial services sector is in the best interests of consumers; welcomes the resolve of the board of the Bradford and Bingley Building Society to remain a mutual as being in the best long term interest of its members; strongly supports the six other building societies that have each received a board nomination and an identical conversion resolution from a pro-conversion candidate who has failed to be elected to the Nationwide Building Society for two years in a row; and, recognising that building societies' mutual status can continue to be challenged in this way every year, calls for a review of the regulatory framework to end the unnecessary disruption that this causes and ensure a level playing field with their competitors in the financial services sector.] Will she be able to find time for a ministerial statement next week, or the week after, in which the Government will announce the measures that they will introduce to stop the annual round of wrecking motions by predators on mutual building societies? That move would be widely welcomed in the House and protect the mutual building society sector.

Mrs. Beckett

I have some sympathy with the points that the hon. Gentleman makes. We recognise the diversity and competition that building societies bring to the savings and loans markets. The future of those societies, of course, remains in the hands of their boards and members. A change can be made only with their agreement. However, I cannot promise the hon. Gentleman a debate on the matter in the near future.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Taking into account your strictures of last week, Madam Speaker, that, in asking for debates during this Question Time, our requests should relate to the following week's business—

Madam Speaker

Order. Members may question the business statement. The Leader of the House has given the business for more than one week. They may question the statement that she has made.

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I wonder, then, whether my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House might consider allowing for a debate some time in the next two weeks on how it was that the National Westminster bank induced its innocent customers to invest in what the bank knew to be a duff and failing business, and how it deliberately and carefully refused to reveal that information to its innocent customers? Has she seen the press release that has been put out by National Westminster bank, in which it rebuts my allegation, which I know to be true, that Mr. Peter Stern was directly involved in that subterfuge?

Mrs. Beckett

I have not seen the press release to which my hon. Friend refers. I detect that the entire House feels a growing sympathy for his call for a debate. However, I am not able to grant it within the two-week time scale.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

In asking the question, I declare an unremunerated interest as the president of the British Art Market Federation. Now that we are within a month of the relevant Council of Ministers meeting on droit de suite, will the Leader of the House contemplate allowing a debate in the next fortnight on both droit de suite and the related subject of value added tax on works of art that are imported to the European Union?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I cannot undertake at this moment to give the right hon. Gentleman the debate that he seeks. I recognise that this is an important and controversial issue and I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends.

Mr. Denzil Davies (Llanelli)

Will my right hon. Friend consider holding a full-day debate over the next two weeks on the order that will transfer the functions of the Secretary of State for Wales to the Welsh Assembly? She will be aware that the transfer is very important, because it could define the relationship between the Assembly and this House, between the Secretary of State for Wales and the Assembly and between the Assembly and Europe. The relevant provisions for Scotland were contained in a schedule to the Scotland Act 1998, but the details of the transfer of powers for Wales have never been debated.

Mrs. Beckett

My right hon. Friend will be aware that the draft transfer order is subject to affirmative procedure in both Houses, so there will be an opportunity to debate it. The time and length of that debate is normally a matter for the usual channels. I understand the strength of my right hon. Friend's case. I fear that I cannot undertake at the moment to give him a whole day for a debate, but I shall bear his views in mind.

Sir Geoffrey Johnson Smith (Wealden)

During Treasury Question Time earlier today, I asked about the European Union withholding tax. The Government are involved in discussions with the EU about the future of the tax, which could have important implications for the City and others. Will she bear in mind that it would be highly desirable for that complex matter to be fully debated in the House during the next two weeks?

Mrs. Beckett

As the right hon. Gentleman said, he has just had an opportunity to raise the issue at Treasury questions. I recognise that discussions are continuing and have some sympathy with his wish to air the matter further. However, I cannot undertake to give him time in the next two weeks.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

Will my right hon. Friend try to ensure that we have a full three hours for the debate on the revenue support grant settlement for England on Thursday of next week? Will she seek to discourage those of my right hon. and hon. Friends who merely wish to congratulate the Government from participating in the debate, so that those of us who have serious concerns about the settlement are able to speak?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's call for a sufficiently long debate. That is a matter for arrangements through the usual channels, but we shall do our utmost to satisfy him. Who is called to speak in the debate is a matter for the Speaker and I would not dream of trespassing on that responsibility.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Does the right hon. Lady recall being asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Ludlow (Mr. Gill) during the debate on the modernisation proposals on 16 December last year whether she is satisfied that the opportunity for Back Benchers to hold the Executive to account will not be reduced as a result of the proposals"?—[Official Report, 16 December 1998; Vol. 322, c. 989.] She answered, "Absolutely and categorically." Is she aware that on Tuesday the Greater London Authority Bill Standing Committee chose not to meet until 2.30 pm today, rather than at 9 am?

The right hon. Lady gave us the distinct impression that Standing Committees would meet at 9 am when assuring us that there would be no reduction in the hours available to Back Benchers to hold the Government to account. Can we have an urgent debate on the effects already being shown by the modernisation proposals in dramatically reducing the opportunities for the House to hold the Government to account? The arrangements may satisfy the Leader of the House and her fellow Ministers, but they sure as hell do not satisfy me.

Mrs. Beckett

This is all so much nonsense. The hours that a Committee chooses to meet are a matter for the Committee. They always have been and it is very likely that they always will be. There is nothing to prevent Committees from meeting at 9 am should they choose to do so. It is not part of my job to criticise them for when they choose to sit.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

On the Scottish business that my right hon. Friend announced, could we have a cost estimate of the weekly wages paid out to contractors for all the joiners hacking away at the headquarters of the Church of Scotland up The Mound, preparing for a transitional Scottish Parliament? In the next two weeks, could there also be time for a debate on whether bombing—be it of Iraq, the El Shifa factory in Sudan or, heaven help us, Serbia—is counter-productive? Is she aware that a serious Slovak delegation is visiting London and that yesterday morning they conveyed to those of us who had discussions with them the idea that a bombing attack on Serbia would enrage not only the Serbs, but all the Slavs—and that we had better be extremely careful?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that the costs of the Scottish Parliament are not a matter for me, nor can I find time for debate on them in the near future. With regard to my hon. Friend's question about the implications and aftermath of decisions to undertake military action such as bombing, such decisions are always difficult and cause problems as well as help to solve them. None of us has a monopoly of wisdom on how such matters are handled and I cannot find time for a debate on them next week.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we have a statement next week from the Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for North Swindon (Mr. Wills), on the filing of accounts and the submission of annual returns? Is the Leader of the House aware that I raise the matter because at Trade and Industry questions last week the hon. Gentleman said that every company with which he had been associated had always complied with the requirements of Companies House? Is she further aware that research has since shown that in three years—1987, 1988 and 1989—returns were filed respectively 11, 15 and 13 months late? In the light of the apparent conflict between the hon. Gentleman's answer last week and the evidence that has since emerged, does she agree that, for his good name and that of the Government, an urgent statement is required?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I certainly cannot find time for a debate on the matter and I doubt whether my hon. Friend is likely to be called to make a statement on it. I am not familiar with the facts that the hon. Gentleman relates, but we are all aware that businesses, particularly small businesses, sometimes have difficulties and overlook complying with certain deadlines. Indeed, it is within my memory that when the hon. Gentleman was employed by the Conservative party, the Conservative party itself was in breach of many such undertakings.

Mr. Harry Cohen (Leyton and Wanstead)

My right hon. Friend referred to the forthcoming debate on the Employment Relations Bill, which contains provisions for leave for family reasons. That is an important advance that my hon. Friends will welcome. However, the fact that it is unpaid leave will make it difficult for many low-paid workers to take up. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that the Government consider the matter and that Ministers come to the debate with proposals or arrangements for payment or tax credit so that low-paid workers can take up their right?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's views on the matter and I am glad that he welcomes the Government's proposals. He is right that it is an important advance and a fresh step to extend rights to parental leave and in particular to create a right to protection against dismissal or detriment for claiming parental leave. However, at present the Government are unable to propose that such parental leave should be paid. Although of course I shall draw my hon. Friend's concerns to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends, I very much doubt that they will feel able to grant his request.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport)

Is the Leader of the House aware that last Sunday 22,000 people attended a rally and march in my constituency of Gosport to protest against the proposed closure of the Royal hospital, Haslar, the only remaining military hospital? Is she aware that there is the most profound concern in Gosport, Fareham and surrounding areas that there will be a loss of accident and emergency cover and other medical facilities and that lives will be lost? In view of that profound concern, will she find time for a debate on the subject, as it really cannot be allowed to escape parliamentary scrutiny?

Mrs. Beckett

I believe that the hon. Gentleman has, perfectly properly, taken several opportunities to raise that matter, and I am sure that he will continue to do so. In that sense, it could not be said that it is escaping parliamentary scrutiny. It is a matter for discussion between my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Defence and for Health, and I am confident that those discussions are taking place.

Siobhain McDonagh (Mitcham and Morden)

Could my right hon. Friend find time in the next fortnight for a debate on the privatised utilities? As I am sure she is aware, there is now one regulator for both gas and electricity, but owing to the heavy legislative programme there will not be time for a new utilities Bill this Session. She may also be aware that I had the chance to raise the matter in the House yesterday during a debate on how some of my elderly constituents were being treated by London Electricity.

Despite condemnation by my hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Industry, London Electricity continues not to provide those elderly people with connections for their storage heaters. I imagine that many hon. Members face difficulties with the company, and I wonder whether my right hon. Friend could consider a debate on present and future frameworks for controlling privatised utilities.

Mrs. Beckett

I have heard of my hon. Friend's strong campaign on behalf of her constituents and I know that London Electricity says that it is now trying to resolve the situation. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on that general matter in the near future, but I have little doubt that, with the ingenuity that she has shown so far, she will succeed in raising it as the opportunity arises.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Bearing in mind the publication of the recent consultation on draft legislation on the Food Standards Agency and, more controversially, the proposals to fund it by a levy, will the Leader of the House make time available for a debate on the subject, so that the Special Select Committee that has been set up can be properly informed of the wider views of Members, who will no doubt reflect the serious concerns of every corner shop and village shop in the country, which will be faced with the extra charges?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that the hon. Gentleman is entirely wrong, but I feel confident that he is acting mistakenly and not from malice. There is no reason why every corner shop in the land should be concerned about the levy, because it will not affect every corner shop in the land. Even for those that are affected, as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister said yesterday, the levy amounts to only £1.73 per premises per week; but it will not in any event apply to retail premises selling some wrapped food, for example, or indeed to food premises that are already exempt from registration and will continue to be so.

It is the intention that the proposals will be discussed with representatives of small business. The special Committee, which I hope the hon. Gentleman welcomes, will allow the measures to be scrutinised, and I do not see the need at present to provide further opportunity for a debate.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an urgent debate in the next fortnight on the import of illegal guns via the internet? She may not be aware that five stun guns were recently imported in that way and found in Bedfordshire; one has still not been discovered, posing a serious danger to my constituents. Given the growth of internet sales, will she find time to ensure that we have protection against the import of such illegal and dangerous armaments?

Mrs. Beckett

I was not familiar with that case, but my hon. Friend makes a very fair point. I fear that I cannot find time for a debate, but I will certainly undertake to draw her observations to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the Home Office.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

Will the Leader of the House, as a matter of courtesy to the House, examine column 302 of the Hansard report of 27 January 1999, where the Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food invites me to see the answer to my parliamentary question on the internet, at a very long and protracted address? For those of us for whom the internet is an unfathomable and obscure instrument, will the right hon. Lady consult the Clerks in the various Departments, as it would be better practice for Parliament that these answers should be fully recorded in Hansard? Those of us who struggle to operate a typewriter, let alone the internet, would rather see them set out correctly in the record.

Mrs. Beckett

I do sympathise with the hon. Gentleman. I concede that I deplored it when, under the previous Administration, agencies began to reply in ways that did not appear in Hansard, after which attempts were made to ensure that the information was fully available. I am not familiar with the issue that the hon. Gentleman raises, but I undertake to look at it.

Mr. Alan Simpson (Nottingham, South)

May I refer my right hon. Friend to early-day motion 227? [That this House notes the remarks made by the Indonesian Defence Attaché, Colonel Halim Nawi on the Mark Thomas Show (Channel 4, 20th January) that British made military equipment, including Saladin and Saracen armoured vehicles, are currently being used in East Timor; and calls on the British Government to stop immediately all military exports to Indonesia until there has been a full investigation into the matter.] In that programme, Colonel Halim Nawi openly acknowledged the use of UK military equipment in East Timor. Would it be possible to find time for the House to debate the question of whether we ought to suspend all arms shipments to Indonesia until this matter has been fully investigated, given that that assertion had previously been denied by the Indonesians?

Mrs. Beckett

I did not hear of the report to which my hon. Friend refers. We are quite confident that no equipment licensed for export to Indonesia by this Government has been used for repression in East Timor. All such licences are looked at carefully, particularly when there is an identifiable risk that the equipment might be used for internal repression or aggression. I am not familiar with the remarks to which my hon. Friend refers, but I will draw his concerns to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends in the relevant Departments.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Can the Leader of the House reassure hon. Members that the absence of a single service day in the business announced for the next two weeks does not represent in any sense a diminution of the Government's commitment to those important parliamentary occasions? In that connection, could we have an early debate on the Royal Navy, since Her Majesty's ships are poised in the Adriatic and the Gulf at a particularly critical time for international relations in both those theatres? Such a debate would give right hon. and hon. Members an early opportunity to express their admiration of the late Admiral of the Fleet, Lord Lewin—an admiration that was recorded in early day motion 253. [That this House expresses its appreciation for the life and service of Admiral of the Fleet the late Lord Lewin who by his example of outstanding devotion to duty in peace and war maintained the highest traditions of the Royal Navy and through his wise counsel and operational experience contributed so much to the liberation of the Falkland Islands in 1982.]

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman will recall that it was only in the autumn that we held some of the service debates, and there is no suggestion whatever that the Government are in any way wishing to dispose of them. The fact that they are not taking place in the next couple of weeks merely reflects the pressure of business. Equally—and with the deepest respect for the late Lord Lewin and his contribution to this nation—I doubt whether Lord Lewin would have thought that the House should spend more time commemorating his passing than debating the future of the armed forces.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

May we have an urgent debate on the subject of blind trusts, as I am sure that the Prime Minister is keen to clear the air following the unfortunate resignations of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool (Mr. Mandelson) and the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West (Mr. Robinson)? The Chancellor has agreed that the blind trust that funded his parliamentary office before the general election was funded by the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West, as was the home of the right hon. Member for Hartlepool.

We know from the Labour party's accounts that no money was given to the Labour party directly by the hon. Member for Coventry, North-West, but a large number of people who are now Cabinet Ministers—including the Prime Minister and the Leader of the House—had blind trusts. We would like to know, as would the country, what has gone on. The air could be cleared in a debate, and there could be full disclosure of the people who gave money to blind trusts to ensure that the Government came to power.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the matter in the near future, and the hon. Gentleman has shown clearly why such a debate would be completely unnecessary. The matters are under consideration by the proper House authorities. I am sure that he is aware—and I hope that he intended no implication otherwise—that all such arrangements, when they were set up, were cleared with the House authorities in the proper manner.

At that time, it was the strong advice of the House authorities and others to handle such matters in that way. That advice may be changing, and I am sure that everyone involved will take account of that. However, I note with some surprise that the Conservative party had recommended to the House authorities that blind trusts were the proper way to pursue such funding—so I really do not know why we should have a debate on the matter.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

On Saturday, large numbers of Britain's pig farmers descended on London to illustrate the crisis facing the industry. The problem is not that they have a poor product but that they cannot compete with imports from countries where cheaper foods are fed to pigs. Such foods are banned here. Moreover, husbandry techniques are allowed in those countries that would never be allowed in Britain now. The crisis is real and immediate: will the Leader of the House allow a debate on it?

Mrs. Beckett

I think that we are all very conscious of the difficulties faced by the pig industry. We have taken what action we can to help it through what I accept is a difficult period. I fear that I cannot promise a debate next week, but I can tell the hon. Gentleman that I always do my best to buy British bacon.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

Following the right hon. Lady's frankly callous and insensitive response to my hon. Friend the Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes) about the Government's proposals to impose a flat tax of £90 on all food shops in the country, will she reconsider whether the whole House should discuss the proposals? The shopkeepers in Bromsgrove find it completely unacceptable that they should have to pay the same amount as the out-of-town supermarkets, which have considerably more customers and make considerably greater profits.

We in Bromsgrove are very lucky in that many of our local communities—such as Rubery, Wythall, Hagley, Alvchurch, Aston Fields and others—have excellent local food shops where pensioners like to shop and which are the hub of their local areas. Those shops are already under severe pressure because of business rates and the competition from out-of-town shopping centres, and they regard the Government's proposals as disgraceful.

Mrs. Beckett

I am sorry if the hon. Lady feels that I have somehow hurt her feelings or those of the hon. Member for South Holland and The Deepings (Mr. Hayes). Frankly, what she said was just plain silly. How can it be callous to set out the facts? Many small shops will not have anything to pay. In some cases, and for a variety of good reasons, even small shops that sell certain foods will be exempt. Such matters can be examined, and that is the purpose of the consultation. I hope that no Conservative Member will do anything to spread alarm and despondency among people who will not have to pay the charge.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will the Leader of the House consider arranging a debate in the next fortnight to consider the operation of the Criminal Justice (Terrorism and Conspiracy) Act 1998, which was passed last summer? That Act was thought to be sufficiently important for the House of Commons to be recalled in the recess, at considerable expense to the taxpayer. It was designed to ensure that people who use this country as a base to conspire to commit terrorist offences abroad could be brought to book. As far as I am aware, so far there has not been a single prosecution under that Act.

Friendly countries abroad must resent what they believe to be the use of this country as a place to plan conspiracies against them, and they will find it difficult to understand that, although Parliament underwent an emergency recall to pass the legislation, nothing has happened as a result. Should there not be a debate to examine that matter, which I think would be of interest to both sides of the House?

Mrs. Beckett

It is a little unusual to be asked to provide time for a debate because nothing has happened. Any credible information or intelligence that is received on the matter that the hon. Gentleman raises is fully investigated, and action would certainly be taken were any relevant evidence uncovered. However, I fear that I cannot respond to the hon. Gentleman's request for a debate on the matter in the near future.

Mr. Andrew Lansley (South Cambridgeshire)

The Leader of the House announced that the Second Reading of the Employment Relations Bill would take place on 9 February. Will she find time before then for a debate that would set the Bill, which will impose yet further burdens on British business, in context? During the past few days there have been reports that 90 per cent. of British businesses would not consider starting up now if they faced the weight of legislative and regulatory burdens placed on them by the Government. The burdens on business have already increased by more than £5 billion since 1 May 1997.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I cannot find time for a debate in which the Conservative party could pursue the allegations it made throughout the general election, and with which it was so patently unsuccessful in frightening British business.