HC Deb 22 July 1999 vol 335 cc1329-41 12.30 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Would the Leader of the House give us the business for next week?

The President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons (Mrs. Margaret Beckett)

The business of the House for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 26 JULY—Conclusion of consideration of Lords amendments to the Employment Relations Bill.

Supplemental allocation of time motion relating to the Local Government Bill.

Consideration of Lords amendments to the Local Government Bill.

TUESDAY 27 JULY—Debate on public expenditure on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

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

The provisional business for the first week back after the summer recess will be as follows:

TUESDAY 19 OCTOBER—There will be a debate on the first report from the Treasury Committee on the Office for National Statistics, followed by a debate on the reports from the Select Committee on Public Administration on the work of the ombudsman. Both debates will arise on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

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

Opposition Day [20th Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on a motion in the name of the Liberal Democrats. Subject to be announced.

THURSDAY 21 OCTOBER—Debate on the fourth report from the Procedure Committee on the procedural consequences of devolution.

FRIDAY 22 OCTOBER—The House will not be sitting.

Sir George Young

We are grateful to the Leader of the House for giving us next week's business and an indication of the business for the first week back. Having said that, today's statement is not a happy one with which to conclude before the recess. I very much regret that, at short notice last night, the Government decided to guillotine two Bills, neither of which the Opposition had planned to delay. The right hon. Lady has now announced yet another guillotine for Monday. I will set out the reasons why we feel that the Government have overreacted when we debate the motion later. At this stage, I would say that the Government have played their hand badly and sent the House off on the wrong note.

Can the right hon. Lady assure the House that Members will be able to get here for the next guillotine debate on Monday? I understand that another group of citizens whom the Government have driven to despair are to lobby Parliament—this time, the truckers, following the latest meeting of the road haulage forum on Monday, which demonstrated that the Government are interested only in delay and not in genuine discussion.

I welcome the proposed debate on the Procedure Committee's report on the consequences of devolution, for which I—and you, Madam Speaker—have been calling. We will do our best to help the Government find the right way through the consequences of devolution for this House which, clearly, they have not thought through.

Also in the first week back, we are due to discuss the Office for National Statistics. Should not we use the time to debate the royal commission on long-term care—a debate that has been called for repeatedly in the six months since publication of the report and which the Government seem anxious to avoid?

Finally, I understand that the Government will publish their annual report next week. Does the right hon. Lady agree that the place to hold the Government to account is not before the press and civil servants in the rose garden at No. 10—as last year—but here, before Members of Parliament, in the Chamber of the House of Commons?

Mrs. Beckett

I, too, regret the fact that the Government have found it necessary to introduce timetable motions on the debates of which I have given notice today. Conservative Members seem to have got it into their heads that things run all one way in the House and that they are at liberty to play the rules as they choose, without the Government being able to have similar regard to those rules. We will be able to touch on those matters if Conservative Members want to debate them. We, too, regret the fact that it was not possible to reach agreement on the handling of legislation. We have to protect not only Government business but the interests of the House as a whole.

On groups being driven to despair, I am not sure what those who were lobbying the House yesterday were driven to, but they were certainly making the most extraordinary noises, which I presume were supposed to be evocative of some part of their argument; they were certainly interesting, if not illuminating.

I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman welcomes the debate on procedure, for which, as he rightly said, both he and Madam Speaker have asked us to find time. I reject the notion that there is something unforeseen about the debate. We need to consider how our procedures can evolve and we will have a useful opportunity to discuss that.

I think that we have been waiting—as the right hon. Gentleman would put it—for the debate on long-term care for closer to four months than six. We will of course have that debate, but we will not be able to have it as early as he suggests.

I listened with great interest to the right hon. Gentleman's remarks on the annual report. I am slightly surprised if he is saying that it should be announced in a statement to the House, as I rather had the impression that he thought otherwise in the past, but I will certainly bear his remarks in mind in the future.

Mr. Kevin Barron (Rother Valley)

Will my right hon. Friend find time in the not-too-distant future for a further debate in a calm atmosphere on the recommendations of the Modernisation Committee on pre-legislative scrutiny? I chaired the Special Select Committee on the Food Standards Bill, which took evidence from two Ministers on two occasions and from 24 organisations and three other individuals. We spent many hours producing a report most of whose recommendations the Government accepted. In view of this week's events, especially as there were more than 20 Opposition amendments on Report, following both Second Reading and the Standing Committee, we need to decide whether this is how the Modernisation Committee wanted us to proceed or whether legislation should go through Parliament in a calmer and more sensible way.

Mrs. Beckett

I had thought that the whole House was grateful to my hon. Friend and the Committee for the excellent work that they did on the Food Standards Bill. Until yesterday, those proceedings were thought to have been a model of the way in which we would all want the all-party recommendations of the Modernisation Committee to be implemented. The Special Select Committee did excellent work, as Select Committees always do, and my hon. Friend is absolutely right to say that the hope was that the legislation would be handled all the better, and would be better legislation, because of the degree and the kind of scrutiny that it had received. I was especially sorry to hear Conservative Members criticising the work of the Special Select Committee.

I agree that if we are to proceed with proper modernisation, we must bear in mind that it will never happen if, at the last minute, when all the proper procedures for a modernised debate have been carried through, people want to take the opportunity to exploit the use of time and not to debate a Bill properly. The House will have to take that into account.

Mr. Don Foster (Bath)

I urge the Leader of the House to find time for the Government to explain to the House why they have made a material change to the contracts for special advisers. Is she aware that, under the previous Administration, special advisers were specifically warned not to engage in purely party political activities, whereas under the new Labour contract they are specifically encouraged to brief Labour Back Benchers?

Will the Leader of the House find time for the Government to explain why the House has been told that there has been no change in the arrangements, when that is clearly not the case? Why have we been told that no records are kept of briefings given by special advisers, when I have in my hand an example of a Department for Education and Employment briefing that is titled, dated and numbered, gives specific references to other titled, dated and numbered briefings and states where copies of such briefings can be obtained? Can the Leader of the House explain why the House has been told that no records are kept?

Finally, on the first question raised by the shadow Leader of the House, will the right hon. Lady provide time to reflect on the use of guillotine motions? Does she accept that the orderly programming of business by timetable motions agreed by all parties is for the benefit of the House, but that the procedure is being brought into disrepute by the sudden introduction of guillotines of which the Opposition parties have had no notice?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman asked me a number of questions about political advisers. I do not know why the House has been told that no records are kept. Perhaps it is because they are not—[HON. MEMBERS: "Perhaps?"] Well, I do not know. The hon. Gentleman makes several suggestions about changes that he says have taken place in the way in which special advisers are employed under this Government compared with under the previous Government. I am not familiar with the arrangements under which special advisers were employed by the previous Government. On at least one occasion, statements were made purporting to suggest changes in the way in which special advisers are able to operate, which—I am told—were not well founded. Conservative Members suggested, for example, that there were changes in the rules that had operated when they were in government when that was not the case. As for the hon. Gentleman's basic assertion that under the previous Government special advisers held themselves aloof from the impurity of party politics, I can only say that the large number of former special advisers decorating the Opposition Benches suggests that that policy was spectacularly unsuccessful.

The hon. Gentleman made an important point about the orderly progress of business and timetable motions. I entirely share his view. I am not sure whether he was able to be in the House last night. If he was, he will know both that I regretted that we felt we had to introduce these timetable motions and that I made it plain that an agreed timetable was sought and it was only when agreement was not forthcoming that we felt we had to take action to protect not only today's but tomorrow's business.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that I for one do not question in any way the right of the Opposition to delay business? That is the legitimate right of the Opposition. Is it not the case that during the 18 years that we were in opposition, when we delayed business, the Government's response was always to introduce a guillotine motion? Therefore, there is absolutely no difference in the responses of the previous and the present Governments. Is my right hon. Friend further aware that on Monday night, when we stayed until two o'clock in the morning—I make no complaints whatever—some Opposition Members voted against every order on the agenda, including one that would have extended the opening hours for the millennium celebrations? They are spoilsports and we should tell the country so.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I am particularly grateful to him for drawing attention to the fact that the Conservative party voted against the licensing extension for the millennium celebrations. Their constituents should all be made aware that the Conservative party wishes them to stay at home without the opportunity of alcoholic refreshment—the new killjoy approach to politics.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

In the light of the last remark of the Leader of the House, may I say that I voted against the motion because my constituents do not wish the licensing laws to be extended through the night and Westminster city council contributed to the consultation paper exactly on those lines?

Mrs. Beckett

I am even more grateful to the right hon. Gentleman—if that is possible—because I was under the misapprehension that many Conservative Members voted to make a gesture without being fully aware that, as he has made plain, it was a deliberate decision.

That reinforces the argument that it is only right for their constituents to know that they have made that decision, as they are perfectly entitled to do.

Mr. Alan Williams (Swansea, West)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend is aware that four regions of the United Kingdom have benefited from billions of pounds of aid from Europe under objective 1 status. Is she aware that the deadline for the initial submission is the end of October, just after we return? To meet the deadline, those four regions need to have indications of support from a series of Government Departments. May we have a statement before the House adjourns on the financial support that will be available for objective 1 applications?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to my right hon. Friend that we will be able to find time for such a statement. However, I understand the point that he makes and I will certainly draw his remarks to the attention of the relevant Departments and my right hon. and hon. Friends there.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Will the right hon. Lady reflect that I cannot remember when guillotine motions were introduced in the last week of a Parliament, when we could sit on a few extra days to have all the debate that we might want? It really seems a little strange that that is the line that the Government are taking. During next week and the recess, will she consider whether the Government can produce an answer to the important suggestion that has been made by members of the Modernisation Committee that hon. Members might be able to table written questions when the House is not sitting? As we are not sitting for 12 weeks, many hon. Members reasonably feel that they would like to get answers out of Ministers during that time. The answers could be published in Hansard on a weekly basis. That would enhance the way in which Back-Bench Members on both sides of the House could keep the Government up to scratch.

Mrs. Beckett

I take on board the strong and powerful request that the right hon. Gentleman makes for the House to sit for longer and not to adjourn next Tuesday. It is not entirely clear to me whether he carries the majority of his party with him in making that request. [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] Oh, he does. Well, that is interesting, especially in view of the number of occasions on which Opposition Members have pressed me, over such a sustained period, to give the dates of the recess.

I recognise that one characteristic of opposition is that the memory fails a little. I am aware, but the right hon. Gentleman has perhaps overlooked the fact, that the recess dates that I have proposed are shorter than those for four out of the five years of the previous Parliament. Far from proposing a longer recess, as some Opposition Members allege that the Government have done, we are already proposing a shorter one. However, I take the right hon. Gentleman's point about written questions. It is a matter that the Government are considering. He will know that there are implications for the staff of the House as well as for others. The matter is under discussion and I accept that it is a worthwhile point to consider.

Mr. Syd Rapson (Portsmouth, North)

Can time be found for a debate on yesterday's Court of Appeal decision on my constituent, Mrs. Carol Glass. To be of help, Madam Speaker, the lady in question has a son of 12 who is disabled. Doctors decided to hasten his death by the injection of diamorphine. The parents objected severely and wanted a court decision. It was refused. The Court of Appeal decision yesterday was not clear and it needs redefining. Only the House could discuss the issue in its own way, to define the matter for the future.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I have, of course, as the whole House will have, great sympathy for families and, indeed, clinicians who find themselves in those difficult circumstances. However, with great respect, although the House is a forum in which such matters may be aired, I am wary of seeking to decide such issues within this forum. It is difficult enough for the courts, clinicians and families to make such decisions. I fear that, much though I sympathise with the concerns that my hon. Friend has raised, I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in the near future.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Bearing in mind the new-found fondness of the Leader of the House for finding time on Fridays for private Members' Bills, will she give us an assurance that, before the House considers such Bills in the next Session, she will have found time for consideration of the fifth report of the Procedure Committee? The report notes that, when ministerial statements are made on Fridays on private Members' Bill days, the House should be given extra time to discuss those Bills, so that the time for ministerial statements is not taken out of private Members' time. That might have ensured that my Bus Fuel Duty (Exemptions) Bill, which would have given a rebate to community transport, would have passed through the House instead of being talked out by a Minister. I find the right hon. Lady's new fondness for private Members' Bills somewhat insincere.

Mrs. Beckett

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman on his desire to assist community transport. It is perhaps unfortunate that he did not manage to do so when he was a Minister at the then Department of Transport, and has been forced to rely on the private Members' Bill mechanism—but there we go; I realise that we all have difficulties from time to time. However, we are giving proper and thorough consideration to the fifth report of the Procedure Committee.

Angela Smith (Basildon)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the announcement earlier this week of new improvements to the vaccine for meningitis C. As secretary of the all-party Cuba group, I have been observing progress on the disease for some time, because the Cuban Government have largely eradicated meningitis C; I hope that we can do the same. May we have a debate on the achievements in the NHS? I realise that there has been an Opposition debate on the NHS, but it seemed to be critical of and did not do justice to the staff in the NHS—nurses, doctors, clinicians and support staff. Would it not now be opportune to hold a debate on the achievements of the NHS and its staff?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I share her view that there is much to celebrate in the achievements of the health service; it is a pity that sometimes the focus of debate in this place is on problems rather than on successes. Although I accept the strength of my hon. Friend's case—I am aware of the work that she and her group have carried out in studying the issue—I regret that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in the near future.

Mr. Archy Kirkwood (Roxburgh and Berwickshire)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that, during the next few days, the Government will make an announcement on those regions in the United Kingdom that may be eligible for objective 2 status under European Union structural funds? Does she acknowledge that such an announcement is vital for many regions represented by Members on both sides of the House? Does she accept that the way in which the decision on regional selective aid was made—at a press conference—did not allow Members the opportunity to cross-examine Ministers on the announcement? Does she also accept that, as there are only a few days left before the summer recess, it is imperative that she finds time, at the appropriate moment, for a statement by Ministers on that matter, so that Members can cross-examine them on the result of the announcement?

Mrs. Beckett

Consideration is being given to how we can inform hon. Members. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that great effort was made by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions to give Members of Parliament as much information as possible. I understand that consideration is being given to how that can be followed up and the fullest possible information can be made available.

Mr. David Borrow (South Ribble)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, since the general election, there has been no debate on the aerospace industry in general, although there have been debates in the context of defence procurement. Given that major changes are due in the European aerospace industry over the next few years, will she be able to find time, after the recess, for a debate on the future of the UK aerospace industry?

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend takes a great interest in these matters; I believe that he is the new chair of the all-party aerospace group—on which I heartily congratulate him. I fear, however, that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the aerospace industry in the very near future, although I am aware of the enormous importance of that industry throughout the UK—not least in the north-west—and of its international success. I fear that that success will have to go somewhat unsung—at least 'for a little while. However, we shall soon be at the stage of considering which issues will be discussed in the Queen's Speech. My hon. Friend may find an opportunity to raise the matter in those debates.

Sir Teddy Taylor (Rochford and Southend, East)

When can we have a debate about the massive expenditure of public funds through the common agricultural policy? Is not the need for such a debate all the more urgent in light of the appalling information that I received in a written answer from Ministers last week, which revealed that last year the European Community spent £100 million on destroying a vast amount of food, including 174,000 tonnes of cauliflowers and 240,000 tonnes of tomatoes? As we are spending £100 million on destroying food, is it not time that the House of Commons debated that subject?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman will know that I have long shared his view that the common agricultural policy needs significant reform. That view is being shared more widely across Europe and the world. The hon. Gentleman will know also that some reforms have been undertaken—although not as many as we would like. We are all seeking opportunities to continue to pursue the issue of CAP reform, not least through international discussions that may take place in the next year or so.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the work of the electoral commission and revitalising democracy? I visited Eddisbury yesterday where voters were clearly motivated by the chance to meet by-election candidates and the Prime Minister but were turned off by the yobbish behaviour of the Conservative party. We need new, radical proposals to revitalise interest, particularly among young people, in the democratic process.

Mrs. Beckett

I share my hon. Friend's view about that important issue. I know that some people continue to believe that we should make it difficult for people to register their vote, but I think that we should make it easier. My hon. Friend will be aware that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary presented a full list of proposals on that matter last week. I am aware that the voters of Eddisbury have the opportunity to express their views today, and I am sure that all Labour Members—but perhaps not Opposition Members—hope that, when they do so, they will bear in mind the Government's many achievements, such as the lowest mortgage rates for 30 years, low inflation, a successful and stable economy and no more boom and bust.

I am strongly of the view that, in elections of any sort, we should pay some attention to the deficiencies of our system. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time to debate that subject in the near future, but I will bear in mind my hon. Friend's remarks.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

The Leader of the House will be aware that we have been pressing for some time for a general debate on Northern Ireland. She will be aware also that the IRA issued a strange statement this morning. May we have a debate in the spill-over period so that we may reflect upon the issues coolly and calmly? Senator Mitchell was invited to travel this road four years ago, but he missed that part of the journey. The decommissioning body then missed its opportunity. Political discussions then led to the Belfast agreement and the decommissioning body was tasked with producing a report. However, the reality is that we have had no decommissioning. What message are three democratic Governments—this Government, the Republic of Ireland Government and the United States Government—sending to terrorists throughout the world when we pander to that sort of behaviour?

Mrs. Beckett

As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, all those Governments are continuing to send the consistent message that we believe in the Good Friday agreement, that we want to see it carried through and that we want the peace process to reach a successful conclusion. I cannot undertake to find time so far in advance for the debate that the hon. Gentleman seeks in the spill-over period. However, I obviously do not rule it out. As we get nearer to the time, it may prove to be the correct thing to do. I shall bear in mind the hon. Gentleman's request, but I am sure he understands that I cannot give him a date at present.

Mr. Steve McCabe (Birmingham, Hall Green)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the war being waged by South Birmingham community health council to prevent the building of a new hospital in south Birmingham? It appears that 14 individuals are prepared to use the health council as a cover for their campaign which is based on information that they know to be false. How is that an acceptable use of public funds? Will my right hon. Friend try to find time in future for a debate on the funding and accountability of community health councils?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I was not aware of the problem to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention. I can well understand his concern if he thinks that difficulties are being caused for the provision of health care to his constituents. I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a debate on the specific subject that he raises, but I undertake to draw his concerns to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health.

Mr. David Maclean (Penrith and The Border)

Does the right hon. Lady not now regret building in the extra, unnecessary week's holiday in February so that Labour Back Benchers can have a few more days off? Will she now reverse the distressing trend of the new Labour Government to give longer and longer recesses so that less and less time is spent in the House and then ruthlessly to curtail debate on every item of substance? [Interruption.] There would be plenty of time to debate matters in the House if the right hon. Lady followed the conventions and traditions of parliamentary debate, rather than guillotining debates.

Mrs. Beckett

I could not quite hear all the right hon. Gentleman's final remarks because of the noise that his colleagues were making. I simply say to him that he is living in a fantasy world. He clearly did not take the trouble to conduct even the most cursory scrutiny—which would be in sound parliamentary tradition—of the facts before he made his points. It is totally untrue to say that the Government have given longer recesses than previous Governments, as I have already pointed out to the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery). This recess is shorter than was the norm under the Government whom the right hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) served so comparatively recently.

As for the mid-February break, I do not regret that, because, Madam Speaker, you will recall, as the right hon. Gentleman clearly does not, that the all-party Modernisation Committee recommended that break because it believed that it would be conducive to the smoother and more effective working of Parliament. Only a few Conservative Members objected, at least publicly, when I sought to accommodate the expressed wish of the House, which is also consistent with parliamentary tradition.

The right hon. Gentleman needs to get it into his head that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick) said earlier, it is of course right, proper and consistent with the traditions of the House for the Opposition to seek to exploit the opportunities available to them regarding the use of time. It is also well within the traditions of the House for the Government to have to deal with those attempts from time to time.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is about time that we revisited the Modernisation Committee's work on electronic voting? In particular, is it not a great waste of time that we go though the Lobby to vote on motions that have not even been debated in the House? At the very least, could we consider the opportunity to use electronic voting on such motions?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point that, as he will know, is raised from time to time in the context of modernising the House. I fear that I cannot find time for a debate on that in the near future. Everyone understands that there is flexibility within the rules of the House for hon. Members, as individuals or as organised groups, to make their case by causing disruption to the proceedings from time to time. That is well within our parliamentary traditions, but hon. Members must realise that if feeling begins to grow in the House that those traditions are being frivolously misused, that will cause problems.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Will the Leader of the House find time before the end of the Session for a debate on England? We have spent a considerable time debating Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, and there has been major constitutional change. It would be useful if hon. Members could express their views on the English question, what should happen and what should be the relationship between English Members of Parliament and other Members of the House. There is no English Question Time or any other opportunity for us to raise those issues, so a debate on England over two or three days would be more than welcome.

Mrs. Beckett

I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. He regularly attends business questions, so he will have heard you, Madam Speaker, draw attention a couple of weeks ago to the fact that this is the United Kingdom Parliament and we are elected as United Kingdom MPs. There is wariness about arguments and steps that seem to jeopardise that union.

The hon. Gentleman will also have heard me make the point before that the Government have been minded to use the Standing Order, which is within the control of the House, on the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs, so that a further forum for the exploration of some exclusively regional affairs could be established. That proposal has hitherto been blocked by the hon. Gentleman's party, so I say to him with great respect that although I do not question his sincerity in raising the matter, I question the sincerity of the Conservative party in saying that there is a lack of time for such a debate.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on the need for more rigorous controls at our airports of passports sold for £30,000 apiece by the sleazemaster general of the Tory party, Mr. Michael Ashcroft, and about the great concern that they are now in the hands of some very dubious gentlemen who are not welcome in this country, even if they do bring money to the new sleaze fund of the Tory party?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not entirely sure whether the handling of passports of a foreign country falls within our remit. I know that my hon. Friend will have made his points to the relevant Secretaries of State who deal with immigration matters.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we have a debate on the so-called review of matters relating to Northern Ireland? It really is time, is it not—I hope that the Leader of the House will agree—to cut through the smoke and mirrors of the review, particularly in light of the fact that we now know that the IRA never had any intention of giving up any weapons? [Interruption.] It has now said so; that is now clear. Please, therefore, may we have no more pretence, and certainly no more releases of terrorists and murderers, so long as the IRA has made it clear, as it now has, that it has no intention—and has never had any intention—of giving up any of its weapons?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I shall not follow the right hon. Gentleman down that road. He knows that Senator Mitchell has only today begun discussions on his work. As I told the hon. Member for Belfast, South (Rev. Martin Smyth), the Government remain committed to the Good Friday agreement. I was under the impression that it was also the policy of the Conservative party to be committed to the Good Friday agreement, although, as I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman is well aware, the request that he has just made would be in danger of jeopardising that agreement. Judging by the noises that were made in support of what he said, I am wondering whether the Conservative party does any longer support the Good Friday agreement. I hope that that is a mistaken impression.

Mrs. Jacqui Lait (Beckenham)

Will the right hon. Lady tell me whether she expects a statement from the Government about their response to the consultation paper on leasehold reform before we rise for the recess? If not, will she assure us that we shall get a debate on the subject in the spill-over period? However, if that is not possible, do we assume that there will be no legislative progress in this Parliament on the reform of leaseholds?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot promise the hon. Lady a debate on the matter before the Session ends. I shall draw her remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government and Housing. As to assumptions about whether anything will be done in this Parliament, the hon. Lady will know that it is never wise to make assumptions about future legislative programmes.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

In the context of the ensuing statement on consumer protection, might time be found to discuss the scam, which has been revealed by some excellent investigative journalism by the Aberdeen Press and Journal, that a Liverpool-based business man, Mr. Peter Quinn, is offering for sale bogus degree certificates for the university of Aberdeen, the Robert Gordon university and the university of Stirling? That will be a matter of concern not only to those hon. Members who, like me, are graduates or honorary graduates of those universities, but, as it obviously involves criminal fraud, it will be of concern to the House, which I am sure will wish the police, trading standards officers and the courts to deal with the matter as swiftly as possible.

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I am sure that the whole House shares with the concern that he has expressed, and will welcome the moves that the Government are making to strengthen consumer protection in that and other respects.

Mr. Nicholas Soames (Mid-Sussex)

I would be grateful if the hon. Member for Aberdeen, North (Mr. Savidge) would give me the relevant address.

Will the Leader of the House see what she can do to provide time in what I know is a packed programme—perhaps this could be arranged for the spill-over period—for the House to have a debate solely on the Territorial Army, so that in the light of events in Kosovo and elsewhere and of the enormous demands for engineers and signallers, many of whom come from the TA, we can question how it was possible for the Prime Minister to say in the House yesterday that the cuts made in the TA by the Labour Government were good for the TA and further for the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a specific debate on the TA. I have no doubt that from time to time there will be opportunities to discuss defence matters. The hon. Gentleman will know that the first phase of the structural reform of the TA is now complete.

The remarks of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday stem from the view that is widely held, not least within the armed forces, that the TA as reformed will be a more relevant, more useful and more integrated part of our defence capability. I suspect that the hon. Gentleman will not be converted to that view. I fear that I cannot offer him an early opportunity again to air his view.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

May I ask the Leader of the House to reconsider her answer of a few moments ago to the request for a debate on the English question? She referred to the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs. When will the Government recognise that England is not merely a collection of regions but a nation? If the Labour party will not speak for England as a nation, others will.

Mrs. Beckett

I think, not for the first time, that the hon. Gentleman has not noticed that although the Conservative party may feel that it should speak for England, it is the Labour party that speaks for England. The Labour party has a majority of Members in England. Of course, the Conservative party has no Members in Scotland and Wales.

I will not reconsider my earlier reply. I think that the integrity of the United Kingdom is enormously important and the Government are determined to protect it. The Conservative party is playing a dangerous game in raising such fire. I think also that it must be a matter of some concern to its Scottish and Welsh parties. What will Conservative candidates in Scotland and Wales say in the next general election? Will they say, "Vote for me although my party has rejected me and does not want me to play a part in Westminster"?

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Will the right hon. Lady give further thought to the reply that she gave to my right hon. Friend the Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery), who asked for the opportunity during the recess to table written questions so that the Government could be held to account during that period? The right hon. Lady, in what I hope is not her penultimate appearance as Leader of the House, did not give a terribly satisfactory reply. It would be a lasting memorial to her years as Leader of the House if she were able to give us an assurance that the Government will be held to account during the recess.

Will the right hon. Lady deprecate the way in which certain Members have abused parliamentary privilege? Does she agree with me that accusations about individuals who cannot answer in the House should not be lightly made, and should be made only if there is real substance in the allegations? When we return from the recess, will she arrange for an early debate on the report of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege that touches on those and other important matters?

Mrs. Beckett

I said to the right hon. Member for East Devon (Sir P. Emery) that I thought that he had made an interesting point and that it was one to which I was prepared to give consideration, although it raises questions for the House authorities as well as for others. I would say to the hon. Member for South Staffordshire (Sir P. Cormack) that the tabling of written questions during a recess would be unprecedented. It is not a practice that the Government are withholding because it is something that no previous Government have been prepared to do or to concede; I am prepared to give the matter consideration but I am not able or prepared simply to say today, "Yes, this is a change that the Government will make." As for a lasting memorial, I am not in a memorial-erecting mood today. I appreciate the thought and I will bear it in mind.

The hon. Gentleman talked about the abuse of parliamentary privilege. He is right to say that matters should not be raised lightly under the cloak of privilege. However, the purpose of privilege is to allow matters to be raised. If privilege were being abused, that would be a matter for the Chair and not only for Members. I feel confident that Madam Speaker would draw us to order were that to be required. The hon. Gentleman has asked for a debate about that and I acknowledge that we will be seeking to find time for it. I cannot tell him now exactly when it will take place.