HC Deb 15 July 1999 vol 335 cc578-92 1.19 pm
The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the business for next week.

MONDAY 19 JULY—Second Reading of the Railways Bill.

TUESDAY 20 JULY—Opposition Day [19th Allotted Day].

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "Deterioration in Health Care Provision in the United Kingdom", followed by a debate entitled "The Government's Proposed Energy Tax", both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

WEDNESDAY 21 JULY—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House which will include the usual three hour pre-recess debate.

Consideration of any Lords amendments which may be received to the Employment Relations Bill.

Remaining stages of the Contracts (Right of Third Parties) Bill[Lords].

THURSDAY 22 JULY—Remaining stages of the Food Standards Bill.

FRIDAY 23 JULY—Private Members' Bills.

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received. The House will also wish to know that on Monday 19 July there will be a debate on sectors and activities excluded from the—

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Does the right hon. Lady mean Monday 26 July?

Mrs. Beckett

No. On 19 July, there will be a debate on sectors and activities excluded from the working time directive in European Standing Committee C. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Monday 19 July: European Standing Committee C—Relevant European Union documents: (a) 13526/98; (b) Unnumbered EM submitted by DTI dated 18 May 1999, Sectors and activities excluded from the working time directive; (c) Unnumbered EM submitted by DTI dated 21 June 1999. Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 34-vi and HC34-xxiv (1998–99)]

Although the hon. Gentleman was mistaken in thinking that the date was incorrect, there was an omission from my remarks. I referred to the consideration on Wednesday 21 July of Lords amendments to the Employment Relations Bill. That is correct, but before that, we shall take consideration of Lords amendments to the Access to Justice Bill [Lords] So, the business will be the Access to Justice Bill, followed by the Employment Relations Bill, followed by the Contracts (Right of Third Parties) Bill.

The only other thing that the House would want to know at this stage is that the new Session will be opened on Wednesday 17 November.

Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

The House is grateful for next week's business.

In the light of the statement that has just been made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, is the Government's intention now not to move the business of the House motion, in the name of the Prime Minister, at 7 o'clock?

Will the right hon. Lady confirm that the plan is still to rise on Tuesday week? Will she confirm that we shall have the promised debate on public expenditure before the House rises?

The Leader of the House will have heard your statement on 12 July, Madam Speaker. You noted that the Procedure Committee … report on the procedural consequences of devolution has still to be debated. You continued that the matter would be reviewed: Once the House has had a chance to debate the fourth report of the Procedure Committee."—[Official Report, 12 July 1999; Vol. 335, c. 21–22.] As the implications of the Government's constitutional reforms have consequences for the House, will the Leader of the House find an early occasion on which we may debate the Procedure Committee's report?

What has happened to the debate on small businesses? Does the Leader of the House recall what the then Minister for Small Firms, Trade and Industry, the hon. Member for Hornsey and Wood Green (Mrs. Roche), said last year? She stated: It 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 in the United Kingdom."—[Official Report, 19 June 1998; Vol. 314, c. 606.] Are the Government now anxious to avoid a debate, because of the problems currently faced by small firms?

At this time of year, there is pressure on Ministers to clear the decks before the House rises. May important statements on Government policy be made in the Chamber, rather than being slipped out in a written answer—as happened this week with the decision to privatise BNFL? Will the Leader of the House outline to the House what statements Ministers plan to make before we rise?

On Monday, does it really make sense to spend a whole day on Second Reading of the Railways Bill, when it will run out of legislative track because the Government introduced it so late in the Session? We shall have to have another day on Second Reading of the same Bill in the new Session. Could we not more usefully spend the time debating the report of the royal commission on long-term care?

Finally, on a more conciliatory note, the House is most grateful for the date of the state opening of Parliament.

Mrs. Beckett

I confirm that the right hon. Gentleman is correct; the Government do not now propose to move the 7 o'clock motion for the order on Friday. We still plan to rise on Tuesday 27 July; it is my intention and hope that we shall hold the public expenditure debate before that date.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about the important debates that we need to hold on the report of the Procedure Committee. I am conscious of that matter and of the fact that Madam Speaker is also keen for the issue to be aired. The right hon. Gentleman asked whether we could find an early occasion for such a debate, and I hope and anticipate that we shall find time, perhaps relatively early in the overspill period. That will kill two birds with one stone, because it means that we shall have a debate before this House gets much further into dealing with the consequences and aftermath, but the new bodies will have had more time to gain their own experience. In that way, we shall have a clearer view of what reciprocal discussions might be possible.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about the debate on small businesses. I am aware of the indication given that there would be an annual debate, and I can think of no reason why the Government should want to delay it. In a whole range of matters—including, for example, introducing the lowest rate of corporation tax that small businesses have ever faced—we are doing a great deal to help the small business community. I assure him that. that matter has not been overlooked, but I cannot give a date for a debate at present.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked about statements. I remind him that, as Madam Speaker has made plain, there is nothing wrong with Government announcements being made by written answer. The House would never do anything else if we tried to make every announcement by way of a statement. I cannot tell him offhand what statements are likely between now and the recess, but I shall see whether we can provide some indication through the usual channels, if that would be helpful.

As for the Railways Bill, I do not accept that the Second Reading debate makes no sense—in fact, I think that it would be an extremely useful step. As I hope the right hon. Gentleman is aware, we hope that the Transport Sub-Committee of the Select Committee on the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs will agree to consider the Bill, in another variant on the theme of pre-legislative scrutiny, which most of the House wants to happen. We hope and believe that that will substantially improve the Bill, which will be extremely helpful to the House in future.

Finally, I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his kind remarks about our giving the date of the state opening. I apologise to the House for not being able to give it before, but there are always some complications in settling such matters.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

May we have a statement from the Home Secretary next week about files kept by the security services? Many hon. Members will have been concerned—although perhaps not surprised—to learn that the United States Environmental Protection Agency has a file on a Minister of the Crown. Bearing in mind that United States legislation does at least allow people to know that a file is held on them, we might, in addition to discussing that matter, consider our own proposed United Kingdom legislation, which, as I understand it, would not allow hon. Members or other people to know whether or not British security services held a file on them. It is time that the Home Secretary assured us that the British security services do not hold files on hon. Members.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I cannot promise a statement from the Home Secretary next week. I was not aware of the matter until my hon. Friend raised it, because I have not seen the reports that a file is held on one of our colleagues—I suspect that, although surprised, he is also deeply flattered. I shall certainly draw my hon. Friend's serious point to the attention of our right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, in case there is anything that he can usefully add.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

May I press the Leader of the House on the fourth report of the Procedure Committee, which is the subject of active political debate? A report before the House contains practical suggestions on a way forward, and I should have thought that an early debate and an early decision by the House would be greatly in the interests of this House, the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly.

May I also raise an issue that I believe my hon. Friend the Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) has already raised with you, Madam Speaker? It relates to the announcement today by the three relevant Secretaries of State of the new objective 1 status and single regeneration budget decisions. That important set of announcements affects almost all hon. Members, with some receiving good news and others bad news. Although the decisions are of great interest and importance, they have been announced not in a parliamentary answer or a statement, but at a press conference held this morning. Will there be an opportunity, before the summer recess, for hon. Members to question Ministers about the decisions and the implications of those decisions?

Mrs. Beckett

First, as I hope I have demonstrated, I understand the importance of the Procedure Committee's report, and the wish of the House to come a view on it. I am sorry that it has not been possible to accommodate such a debate before the House rises for the summer recess, but an early debate in the overspill period will be not merely satisfactory but perhaps even better than having a debate now, when the Scottish Parliament, for example, has yet to embark on its new Session.

The hon. Gentleman also referred to assisted areas. He helpfully flagged up what is always the dilemma for the House and the Government, in that the responsibility for such matters crosses a number of departmental boundaries. Who, then, would make the statement? Hon. Members might want to question Ministers from different Departments on different aspects of the statement. In addition, we were aware that, sadly, it would be necessary for my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to make a statement today. There is always a business statement on a Thursday, too, and it would be difficult for the House if we had three statements on one day.

As the hon. Gentleman knows—if he does not, he will find out when he leaves the Chamber and gets his post—my right hon. Friends have written to every hon. Member giving the full details. Although hon. Members will seek other opportunities to raise points publicly, all the information that they would want is available to them, probably in a fuller form than would have been possible if a statement had simply been made to the House. The Government have tried to overcome the difficulties that the hon. Gentleman rightly identified.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Is there not now an urgent need for a debate on the future of the constitution, particularly regarding devolution in England, because of the extraordinary and irresponsible speeches of Conservative Members? They claim that the House should act as an English Parliament on certain occasions, which would mean that Welsh, Irish and Scottish MPs would have to neglect their duties and responsibilities as elected United Kingdom Members. Is it not right that we should proceed with devolution in an orderly way with the consent of the British people?

The suggestion that we should somehow turn ourselves into an English Parliament would inevitably mean that the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly would demand more powers, which would lead to the break-up of the United Kingdom. Should we not proceed by debate, decision and referendum, rather than by the Leader of the Opposition making opportunistic speeches purely for his own political gratification?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend, as I recall, raised the general issue of the role and responsibility of UK MPs on Monday, when you, Madam Speaker, made it plain that we were all elected as Westminster MPs to serve in the Parliament of the United Kingdom, and that we all enjoy the full panoply of rights and responsibilities here.

I entirely share my hon. Friend's view that the Leader of the Opposition, not for the first time—indeed, it is becoming an unfortunate characteristic of his leadership—has rushed into something that he presumably hopes will give him short-term political advantage, without thinking through the long-term consequences. Although he claims to support the Union of the United Kingdom, he is in danger of fomenting exactly the kind of debate and discussion that would lead to the UK breaking up into its several countries.

Moreover, the right hon. Gentleman has made those remarks at a time when we are debating a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland, and he has said not only to Welsh and Scots MPs, but presumably, although he was not so tactless as to include them in his remarks, to Northern Ireland MPs, that they should not have a voice in affairs that impinge on England. To make those remarks at this time is foolish and very dangerous.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

Can we have, as a matter of urgency, a debate on rural bus services, with particular reference to their privatisation? It is disgraceful that when the Government came to office, 75 per cent. of rural parishes had no daily bus service. Although I welcome the Government's commitment to provide funds for rural bus services, and my constituency has benefited from being given £38,000 for services to Horndon and Bulphan, it is of great concern that privatised bus services have cherry-picked profitable routes, while cutting back on essential local rural services. An early debate on that issue would give us the opportunity to contrast the Conservative party's phoney concern for rural areas with the genuine action by the Government.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right about the improvements that have been made in rural areas, with some 1,500 new and enhanced bus services. That is only part of the picture. There are 1,000 more train services a day, new freight terminals and 16 new stations. Bus investment is 80 per cent. higher than it was five years ago. My hon. Friend is right, though, to identify the fact that it will take time to remedy the damage done by the Conservative party. As for the Conservatives' recent transport document, apart from the fact that it seems designed to be a boy racer's charter, it flies in the face of the record of the previous Government, who cut spending on buses, on the tube and on road maintenance, and left things in a pretty parlous state, from which the present Government are seeking gradually to rescue them.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

May we have a statement, or perhaps a debate, on the position of junior hospital doctors? At their recent conference they voted unanimously to hold a ballot on industrial action because of the shabby treatment that they have received from the Government, not only in their exclusion from the working time directive but in the very poor compensation that they receive for the long hours that they have to work. If the Government propose that they should work excessive hours for the next 13 years, should they not be properly compensated? If the situation is not resolved, it will have an impact on patient care for all our constituents.

Mrs. Beckett

Junior hospital doctors' hours of work have fallen under the present Government, and we have every intention of ensuring that they continue to fall. There is no suggestion that hours will be increased. I am aware that there is concern among that group, and we are all well aware of the extent to which their dissatisfaction and concern swelled under the previous Government. However, I remind the hon. Gentleman, and the doctors, that their pay is set by an independent pay review body with the backing of the British Medical Association, and that the present Government—unlike the previous Government—have implemented the pay review body' s recommendations in full. We accept that things are not improving as fast as junior hospital doctors would like them to, and as we would like them to, but under this Government—unlike the previous Government—things are at least going in the right direction.

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset)

May we have an urgent debate next week on the Government's failure to respond to Members' correspondence? I am sure that the Leader of the House knows, because she keeps an eye on such things, that the Cabinet Office produced a report the day after the European elections, when everyone had their eye off the ball, showing how appallingly the Government were doing.

The right hon. Lady will know that there is an annual report, and that the figures for 1997 were by common consent appalling. The figures for 1998 are even worse. She will also know that in 1997 only three Departments met the Cabinet Office's target of dealing with 90 per cent. of correspondence within three weeks—which is an appalling target anyway. In 1998 only one Department reached that target—the Cabinet Office, the Department that is doing the measuring—and two Departments, including her own, failed to achieve what they had achieved in 1997. When are we going to see some action, instead of excuses?

Mrs. Beckett

I have not seen the recent figures to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I am not quarrelling with his interpretation of them. If anyone was going to do that, it would no doubt be my right hon. Friend the Minister for the Cabinet Office, when he takes questions next Wednesday. The hon. Gentleman will have an opportunity to ask him about the figures then.

Of course we recognise that it is important to try to improve the record on answering MPs' correspondence, and everyone greatly regrets the fact that no improvement is yet taking place. The amount of correspondence sent to several Departments is increasing sharply, which does not help. However, I share the hon. Gentleman's concern, and the Government will continue working on the matter.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Before we return to Westminster in October the Serbian winter will have set in, so might there be an opportunity for a debate on the Red Cross's warning about Serb starvation? The president of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, Dr. Astrid Heiberg, has warned that many people in Serbia are on the verge of starvation because of the effects of the recent NATO air raids and the international sanctions. Dr. Heiberg told the BBC that not only Serb refugees from Kosovo, but many elderly people on fixed incomes, were suffering. She appealed to the international community to provide humanitarian aid to Serbia without conditions. Should not the topic at least be debated, before it is too late to do anything about it?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate for my hon. Friend before the House rises for the summer, but there are, of course, the pre-recess debates, as he knows. I am not aware of any Red Cross reports predicting mass starvation or stating that people are on the verge of starvation, although I know that the Red Cross is concerned about the prospects for the winter.

Certainly, humanitarian assistance is on offer. There are difficulties in Serbia because there is only limited independent access, but the Government would be prepared to consider any request for assistance through international humanitarian organisations. The European Community Humanitarian Office—ECHO—has allocated 26.5 million euros for humanitarian assistance to Serbia, and the UK's share of that will be some 2.5 million, so I can assure my hon. Friend that some action is being taken and that we will continue to keep the situation under review.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we please have a debate on the relationship between the Government, the Labour party, outside single-interest groups, large sums of money and legislation? There have been a number of stories recently, of which the President of the Council is no doubt aware, that there may be some connection between the appearance of legislative proposals and the passage of large sums of money, possibly with threats attached, and between outside interests and the Labour party. I am sure that the President of the Council would want to take an early opportunity either categorically to deny such accusations or, perhaps, to introduce proposals that draft Bills would routinely contain an itemisation of the sums of money that had changed hands in order to get them to the stage of a Government proposal.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot offer to find time for such a debate, but I am deeply grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving me the opportunity to refute utterly the ridiculous allegations that have been made, and to point out that what was said by the Leader of the Opposition this morning on the "Today" programme was straightforwardly untrue. There is no truth in the suggestion that the Labour party changed policy on any issue after being given a donation by anyone.

Mr. Ian Bruce

Formula one.

Mrs. Beckett

Formula one is the classic example where we did not change policy. I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman is so ill informed. As I was the shadow Minister in charge of the policy at the time, I am perfectly well aware of the position. [Interruption]

We were never committed to abolishing funding for sponsorship from tobacco companies. Indeed, I had many conversations with people in the medical profession when they told me how much they welcomed our decision to ban tobacco advertising and how much they regretted that we would not extend it to banning sponsorship of sports, but how fully they understood that that was very much more difficult and that it was a step too far. They did not expect us to ban sponsorship in sports. We were not committed to doing so, and we did not change policy. Anyone who suggests that we did, I am afraid, is telling an untruth.

Mr. Gerry Sutcliffe (Bradford, South)

My right hon. Friend knows of the excellent work that the Government are doing to combat domestic violence. I do not know whether she had the opportunity to watch the "Newsnight" programme the other evening about the problems of domestic violence that are developing in marriages between British citizens and foreign nationals. The issue is causing great concern, and I have a case in my constituency. I will not name the people involved, but an individual is using every opportunity to prevent the proper rules from being applied, and his partner lives in constant fear of domestic violence. Will my right hon. Friend consider a debate on the subject at some time in the future?

Mrs. Beckett

I did not see the "Newsnight" programme to which my hon. Friend refers, but hon. Members across the House recognise that domestic violence is a difficult and sensitive subject. He will know that a statement about domestic violence was published recently and that the Government, including my right hon. Friends the Lord Privy Seal and the Home Secretary, who jointly published the major statement, are continuing to work on the matter. I recognise that there are circumstances in which what is always an appalling situation is exacerbated by other factors, and I understand the sensitivities to which my hon. Friend refers. I fear, however, that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the subject in the near future, but he also might like to bear in mind the pre-recess debates.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Is there no possibility that we could substitute Monday's debate on Second Reading of the Railways Bill for a debate on the BBC and, in particular, its plans to spend £100 million on landmark programming to celebrate the millennium, which will include a 27-hour live breakfast broadcast that is unlikely to include the proceedings of the House? Many Members of the House, including some on the Labour Benches, would no doubt like to express the view that that money would be better spent on concessionary licence fees for pensioners.

Mrs. Beckett

No matter how much the BBC is planning to spend on that programme, I rather doubt that the amount would stretch to a budget that could fund concessionary television licences for all pensioners. I was not aware of the proposals to which the hon. Gentleman refers, but I fear that I cannot find time for a special debate on the BBC in the near future. Indeed, I would be a little wary of setting a precedent whereby we in the House start to second-guess the television programmers. I think that we second-guess quite enough people as it is.

Mr. Jim Murphy (Eastwood)

My right hon. Friend will be aware from the Secretary of State for Scotland of the excellent news from the Kvaerner shipyards in Govan in Glasgow. She will also be aware that this is a perfect example of a Labour Government helping a labour force to protect and enhance their jobs and their futures. I believe that the action taken by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, his ministerial colleagues and the trade unions at Kvaerner will save up to 1,200 jobs. I know that the legislative agenda is packed, but can she arrange for an early statement or debate on the detail of the deal? That would not only bring to the fore more information about what the Government have achieved, but provide an opportunity to emphasise to the whole House—including Conservative Members who, we should remember, represent a minority of the English vote—the importance of the continuing role played by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland in the Cabinet and in the United Kingdom Parliament.

Mrs. Beckett

The whole House will share my hon. Friend's pleasure at the decision that has been reached and the outcome for those whose jobs have been saved. We should pay tribute to my right hon. and hon. Friends who, I understand, engaged in 40 hours of discussions to secure the arrangements to which he refers. I fear that I cannot find time for a special debate, although I note that Scottish questions will take place on Tuesday week, and he may seek to raise the matter then. One thing is quite clear: I recall that less than courteous remarks were made by some on the Conservative Benches at the previous Scottish questions about what role and functions my right hon. and hon. Friends would undertake in future. I think they have demonstrated admirably both their usefulness and their skill.

Mr. Paul Burstow (Sutton and Cheam)

I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 405, on the royal commission on long-term care:

[That this House congratulates the Government for its commitment to tackling the inequalities and inefficiencies of the present system of funding long-term care for older people; commends the Royal Commission on Long-Term Care for reporting within 14 months after consultation with over 2,000 organisations and experts in the field as well as members of the public; and joins with Age Concern in calling on the Government to produce a clear timetable for introducing long overdue changes to the system in recognition of the fact that older people do not have the time to wait for further debate.]

In the light of earlier questions, when will the House have the opportunity to debate the royal commission's recommendations, not least because of the Secretary of State's desire to have such a debate? Will a debate be held before the Government come forward with their conclusions and response to the royal commission?

Mrs. Beckett

As the hon. Gentleman is well aware, the royal commission has produced a detailed report and the commissioners themselves called for a full debate across the country about its implications. I anticipate that that debate will continue for some time, and we should like to use it to inform the decisions that the Government may take on the matter. I am aware of the pressure for a debate in the House, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for it in the near future. However, I am sure that this will be one of the issues that is on everybody's list of matters for debate after the recess.

Mr. Brian White (Milton Keynes, North-East)

I appreciate that there will be a wide-ranging health debate next week, but can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate so that we can review the progress of NHS Direct? One of the original NHS Direct pilot schemes took place in Milton Keynes and more than 250,000 phone calls have been made to it since then. Is my right hon. Friend aware that the general practitioners in my constituency now put NHS Direct's phone number on their ansaphone messages to direct people to it outside surgery times? Can she find time for a debate so that we can review the progress of the NHS roll-out?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. The experience of his constituency, where one of the early pilot projects took place, is particularly interesting. I am most encouraged by what he says about the partnership that is developing between general practitioners in his area and NHS Direct, as the House will be. It is particularly interesting because, as he will recall, of late there have been comments in the news media suggesting that general practitioners oppose NHS Direct. It is clear from an area where the scheme has been piloted that not only is it successful with the public, but it is adding an extra, useful dimension to health care provision.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

May I support the plea of the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) for a debate on junior doctors' hours and specifically request the attendance of a Northern Ireland Health Minister for Tuesday's debate? At a recent British Medical Association conference in Belfast, a Belfast graduate speaking of the situation in an English hospital made a tremendous speech on this issue and actually said that the situation in Northern Ireland was even worse.

The Leader of the House will be aware that there has been a delegation dealing with human rights in Pakistan in the House this week. Concern has been expressed about cultural and political apartheid, with separate lists. I welcome Pakistan back into the Commonwealth, but will it be possible to have a statement shortly so that we can see whether we are encouraging political apartheid within the Commonwealth?

Mrs. Beckett

I believe that the hon. Gentleman may be able to raise that last matter at Question Time on Tuesday. I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on it now, although I know that the House has had discussions of the kind that he indicates and that many hon. Members have taken part.

As for junior doctors' hours, I understand that the debate on Tuesday, as the hon. Gentleman anticipates, will be taken by Department of Health Ministers. It is not at present within my knowledge whether it is possible for a Northern Ireland Minister to attend. I shall certainly draw the hon. Gentleman's wish to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I am sure that, if she and her colleagues can accommodate it, they will do so.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

In view of the letter yesterday from the Leader of the House to the Leader of the Opposition regarding the tax fiddle arrangements of Michael Ashcroft, the Treasurer of the Tory party, will there be a statement on the matter at some point? Will all the relevant authorities make all the necessary inquiries to find out how the previous Tory Government arranged the tax fiddle? Can we have assurances that every single Foreign Office Minister and other Ministers in other Departments at that time will be investigated about the role they played in arranging for Michael Ashcroft to divert money away from the British taxpayer and into Tory party coffers? Can we know how much money the Tory party has had over the years from this person who seems to own and run it?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend has asked a series of questions, many of the answers to which are not in the public domain, as he will know. Papers on whatever exchanges took place are not available to Ministers in this Government. They would have to be released by a decision—

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Leak them.

Mrs. Beckett

We cannot leak the papers. I am just making the point that there is no access to them. It is not open to Ministers in this Government to see them or to have access to their contents, let alone to leak them. They are the property of the previous Government. They could be released—[Interruption.] The right hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. Redwood) is not paying attention or perhaps not bringing his scintillating intelligence to bear on the matter. Ministers in this Government do not have access to those papers. They have not been released, although presumably they could be, if former Ministers were prepared to allow that.

As for how much money Mr. Ashcroft gives to the Conservative party and what proportion it is of Conservative party income, until now the Conservative party has refused to release any information on this subject, although it claims to be committed to the principle of openness about party funding. This morning, the Leader of the Opposition gave an indication of a sum that Mr. Ashcroft had recently given, but the whole picture is not clear. If the right hon. Gentleman means what he says about openness in party funding, presumably it shortly will become clear.

Mr. Mike Hancock (Portsmouth, South)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 796?

[That this House is deeply concerned by the findings of the investigation by the Computer Weekly magazine into the fatal crash of RAF Chinook ZD576 on the Mull of Kintyre in 1994; notes that the Ministry of Defence did not inform Air Accident Investigation Board personnel that they were suing the manufacturer of a problematic engine control system at the time of the accident; notes further that problems with safety-critical engine software were not resolved before the Chinook Mk 2 was released into service; believes that new evidence from the United States demonstrating that other factors may have been responsible for the accident undermines the burden of proof required to sustain the verdict of gross negligence against the deceased pilots; and calls upon Her Majesty's Government to re-open the Board of Inquiry.]

The early-day motion refers to the RAF Chinook crash on the Mull of Kintyre in 1994. I urge the right hon. Lady to bring some pressure to bear on the Secretary of State for Defence to come to the House and make a statement on the attitude of the Ministry of Defence to the recent report and inquiry carried out into the crash by Computer Weekly. If he is not prepared to make a statement to the House, will the Leader of the House prevail on the powers that be to allow a debate, so that at long last we can do justice to the memory of the two pilots who were killed by providing some answers? Air safety could be improved generally when the causes of the crash are publicly announced once and for all. Anything short of that is a disgrace to the memory of all the people who died in that helicopter, and continues to put at risk the lives of the men and women who fly Chinooks on behalf of this country.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that the whole House shares the sympathy expressed by the hon. Gentleman for the families of those who died. He has continued to pursue this issue. It was a tragic accident. My right hon. and hon. Friends have always said that they would consider any fresh and relevant evidence. Until now, the judgment has been that no evidence has been produced that could lead to the issue being reopened.

The hon. Gentleman has asked several questions on this issue, and the Minister for the Armed Forces will hope to reply to those questions in the near future.

Mr. Peter Bradley (The Wrekin)

Further to the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), will the Leader of the House arrange for a debate on political party funding, so that the Labour party can make its arrangements completely transparent to the House and the general public? It would afford the Conservative party the same opportunity, particularly in relation to foreign funding and the evidence that it gave to the Neill committee that it would not take foreign funding.

Such a debate would also allow the Conservative party to explain how it squares that evidence with the appointment of Mr. Michael Ashcroft as its treasurer and the receipt from him of major financial donations, given that he is a United Kingdom tax exile resident in the United States with principal business interests in Belize, of which, along with the Turks and Caicos islands, he is a citizen. It is alleged that he funds the Government party in Belize and, extraordinarily, he is that country's ambassador to the United Nations. If that is not foreign, I do not know what is. If we had a debate, the Conservative party would be able to explain why it thinks he is not, and why, when diplomats told Ministers in the previous Government that a shadow hung over his reputation that ought not to be ignored, they ignored that advice—and the Conservative party continues to ignore it now.

Will the Leader of the House grant this request for a debate on party political funding, so that all those issues and the revelations exposed in the newspapers this week can be properly aired?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the pressure that my hon. Friend is exerting. I share his view that it is a little hard to square what the Conservative party has said about taking funds from foreign sources with its relationship with Mr. Ashcroft. I take my hon. Friend's point that this interesting question could be explored by the Leader of the Opposition, who could explain to us how he squares those views if there were time for a debate in the House. However, tempting though that is, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in the near future. Who knows, at some point the Conservative party, which has Opposition time, may want to explore such an interesting issue.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

The right hon. Lady will probably not know that I previously raised with her predecessor as Leader of the House the issue of the conduct of the Deputy Prime Minister—whom I am delighted to see in the Chamber—when he refused to answer a question posed by me in the House. He wrongly said that the question was untruthful.

I now return to the question of the right hon. Gentleman's conduct in relation to his other role as Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions. I request a debate on early-day motion 820.

[That this House notes with concern the failure of the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions to respond to a letter from the honourable Member for New Forest East when originally sent on 16th March and when faxed to his office on 25th May; further notes that the only matter discussed over the telephone by the Secretary of State's and honourable Member's offices was the Secretary of State's repeated failure to reply; therefore deplores the misleading written Answer on 8th July to a written question from the honourable Member for New Forest East, in which the Secretary of State wrongly stated that his reason for repeatedly failing to reply, was that 'the matter was dealt with by our offices over the telephone'; and accordingly calls upon the Secretary of State to handle his correspondence from honourable Members properly in future, rather than seeking to shield his incompetence and discourtesy.]

The motion relates to the right hon. Gentleman's failure to respond to correspondence from me, his further failure to respond to reminders about his failure to respond to correspondence from me, and his eventual misleading written answer, which wrongly claims that he does not respond to correspondence from me because the matter has been dealt with on the telephone.

Back Benchers are fed up with this sort of arrogance and disregard for their attempts to do their duty, particularly when it is covered up by erroneous claims.

Mrs. Beckett

I readily admit that much of what the hon. Gentleman said struck me as somewhat opaque, but I gather that there is a dispute between him and my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. Someone in the hon. Gentleman's constituency is under the impression that he has seen my—I had hitherto thought unmistakeable—right hon. Friend in the constituency. My right hon. Friend says that he has not visited the hon. Gentleman's constituency, and that his office has written to the hon. Gentleman to say so.

We all recognise—[Interruption.] As I say, I am not as fully acquainted with all the details as I would like to be in order to give the hon. Gentleman the fullest possible answer. I can only say that we all understand that it is a matter of sensitivity when Members are, or are thought to be, in other Members' constituencies. I am confident that, had my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister been in the hon. Gentleman's constituency, he would have intended no offence thereby.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

Will the right hon. Lady confirm that the Government intend to publish a second annual report on human rights before the recess? Can she confirm that this year, it will be a Command Paper? If it is published, will she be able to find time, either immediately before the recess or immediately after it, for the House to debate its contents? Many hon. Members are very committed to the cause of human rights around the world, and want an opportunity to discuss the matter in detail.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I am not in a position to assist the hon. Gentleman at this stage. I have rather lost track of the timing of these issues, but I shall certainly make inquiries, and if there is any further information that I can give the hon. Gentleman, I shall write to him.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the Leader of the House arrange a full day's debate next week, in Government time, on the harrowing plight of this country's heart patients? Is she aware that the patients charter specifies that no heart patient should be obliged to wait for more than 12 months for cardiac surgery? Is she further aware that a recent survey of 35 NHS trusts in England shows that no fewer than 21 of those 35 are failing to meet the target, and that in some cases, heart patients are having to wait for up to 17 months to receive the surgery to which they are entitled?

In view of the evident gravity of the situation, and given that constituents of right hon. and hon. Members on both sides of the House are directly affected by the crisis, will the right hon. Lady arrange for the debate that I have requested, so that it can be urgently addressed?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for another full day's debate on health care—particularly on one aspect of health care—in the near future, but I am aware that there have been difficulties, especially in some key parts of the country, and that local health authorities and local trusts are working to address them. I know that, in some instances, additional funds have been awarded in an attempt to resolve the problems.

Although I fear that I cannot provide a whole day in Government time, I am sure the hon. Gentleman will have observed that there is a half day of Opposition time on Tuesday. He may have an opportunity to raise the matter then.