HC Deb 24 June 1999 vol 333 cc1285-98 12.31 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

May I ask the Leader of the House to give us the business for next week?

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 28 JUNE—Second Reading of the Financial Services and Markets Bill.

TUESDAY 29 JUNE—Opposition Day [16th Allotted Day].

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate entitled "Delays in the Issue of Passports". Followed by a debate entitled "Planning and Transport Congestion". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

WEDNESDAY 30 JUNE—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Disability Rights Commission Bill [Lords].

THURSDAY 1 JULY—Debate on armed forces personnel on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

It may be convenient for the House if I say at this point that, if agreement is achieved at the political talks in Belfast by the deadline of 30 June set by the Prime Minister, it will be the intention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as soon as possible thereafter to lay a devolution order under section 3 of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, appointing the day for the transfer of powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. A draft order would come before this House and the House of Lords on 1 July for approval. Of course it is not possible to be certain of the outcome of the negotiations, but I thought that it would be helpful for the House to be aware of the Government's intentions at this stage in case an agreement is reached next week.

FRIDAY 2 JULY—Debate on drugs 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 following week will be as follows:

MONDAY 5 JULY—Progress on remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

TUESDAY 6 JULY—Conclusion of remaining stages of the Finance Bill.

WEDNESDAY 7 JULY—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition Day [17th Allotted Day].

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

THURSDAY 8 JULY—Remaining stages of the Youth Justice and Criminal Evidence Bill [Lords].

FRIDAY 9 JULY—The House will not be sitting.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 7 July there will be a debate on 2000 Preliminary Draft Budget Overview European Standing Committee B. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 7 July 1999:

European Standing Committee B—European Union document: SEC(99) 6000: 2000 Preliminary Draft Budget; Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 34-xxi (1998–99).]

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for next week's business and an indication of the business the following week.

The right hon. Lady referred to Northern Ireland. As she knows, the situation there continues to cause concern on both sides of the House. We support the Good Friday agreement, and we all hope that the talks will have a successful conclusion. Although we have Northern Ireland questions on Wednesday and the possibility of a debate on a draft order, I wonder whether that affords the House sufficient opportunity to express its views on a serious matter that has not been debated in the House for some time. Will she, after discussions through the usual channels, consider a statement or debate on Northern Ireland?

The House would still like to debate the report of the royal commission on long-term care, which was published some time ago and is of interest to many of our constituents. Can the right hon. Lady shed any light on that? When might we have such a debate?

When can we have our usual debate on policing in London, in the light of the serious and deplorable riots in the City of London last week?

May I press the right hon. Lady on time for debates on public expenditure and the economy? I have raised the matter on many occasions, and over several months. It is not right for the House of Commons to have no framework for discussion of key issues of this kind. Can the right hon. Lady confirm that we will debate the economy before the House rises for the recess, and that she will then set out how and when the House will debate the economy, and public expenditure, during the course of a parliamentary year?

I see from the Order Paper that the Secretary of State for Health is to answer a written parliamentary question on medical cloning. In view of the interest and controversy surrounding the issue, would it not have been better for the Secretary of State to make a statement to the House?

There is mounting interest in the dates relating to the summer recess. We all understand the difficulties involved, but could the right hon. Lady shed some light on the matter, so that the many people who work here can begin to make realistic plans?

Mrs. Beckett

As the right hon. Gentleman said, the whole House wants the discussions in Northern Ireland to have a successful outcome. I shall ensure that the issue is raised through the usual channels—although, as the right hon. Gentleman himself pointed out, there are Northern Ireland questions, and there may also be potential for a debate. The matter will have to be kept under review.

The right hon. Gentleman raised the issue of long-term care—a matter that he has raised on a number of occasions. Discussions are continuing but, as will be clear to him, the Government have a heavy programme of legislation and, because of events in Kosovo, have also had a heavy programme of debates. Although I am conscious of the fact that the House wants to discuss issues such as long-term care, I am not sure that it will be able to do so at an early date, although I do not rule that out in the slightly longer term.

The right hon. Gentleman asked for a debate on policing in London. I agree that the events of recent days make the issue even more pertinent, and I hope to find time for such a debate in the near future.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked for a debate on economic matters. Of course, we have just had Treasury questions. Discussions have been taking place about the pattern of future debates, and I have proposals which I hope can be discussed and agreed through the usual channels—perhaps, if we are lucky, as early as next week. The right hon. Gentleman pressed me to arrange a debate before the summer recess. I expect there to be a public expenditure debate before then and, as I said, I hope to be able to make proposals for the pattern of such debates over the year.

The right hon. Gentleman pressed for a statement on medical claims.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Cloning, not claims.

Mrs. Beckett

I beg the right hon. Gentleman's pardon.

I understand why the right hon. Gentleman pressed for such a statement, but I think that he will understand that a good many statements have been made. The Government have undertaken to try to avoid statements on Opposition days, which compresses the time available. It is a difficult situation. As you have pointed out in the past, Madam Speaker, there is nothing improper about Ministers' making policy decisions known by means of written answers on occasion, although obviously we try to arrange for statements to be made when that is possible.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about recess dates. I am well aware that both Members and staff are anxious to make their arrangements. Uncertainties remain about possible future business, but I hope to be able to give the House more information in next week's business statement.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

At a time when we are learning of terrible atrocities in Kosovo, can we be reassured that, if and when the guilty are brought before the International War Crimes Tribunal, Lord Bingham will have no input whatever in the sentencing or appeal procedure? In view of his latest outburst, would it not be appropriate for the Lord Chief Justice to consider his own position?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern that those who are responsible for events in Kosovo should be brought to justice. I rather suspect, however, that I might fall foul of your strictures, Madam Speaker, were I to be drawn further down the path that my hon. Friend has identified.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Will the Leader of the House make urgent representations to the Secretary of State for Health for an immediate—early, at least—statement on new-variant CJD? Has she seen this morning's press report to the effect that an instruction has been issued by the Department of Health that there may be a risk of contamination from the use of trial contact lenses? The Association of British Dispensing Opticians apparently had no advance notification of the instruction. There has certainly been no notice of it to the House, and no explanation of what is happening.

The Leader of the House will recognise that there is very real concern about new-variant CJD, and that it has been a long time since the Department of Health, or any other Department, gave any indication of the Government's current thinking on it. This latest announcement has all the hallmarks of a knee-jerk reaction such as the House suffered on 20 March 1996, when the previous Government made their bombshell announcement.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the hon. Gentleman's concern, which I am sure is felt on both sides of the House. I cannot undertake to find time for an urgent debate on the matter, although I shall certainly draw his anxieties to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. It is my understanding that the precise terms of advice and guidance to opticians are being worked on in consultation with the professional bodies. However, I think that both sides of the House will understand that my right hon. Friend wished to alert people, at the earliest possible date, to a possible risk identified to him by the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee.

Mr. Bill O'Brien (Normanton)

Will my right hon. Friend consider an early debate on the Government's policy on reducing the licence fee for small cars? Many constituents are now finding that, although vehicles are registered as 1100 cc, technical details and obstacles are preventing many elderly people and people on low incomes from benefiting from the Government's policy, thereby creating great unrest and unfairness in many areas. The House should have an opportunity to resolve that problem and to try to persuade the Chancellor of the Exchequer that there should be a margin of tolerance, between 1100 cc and 1200 cc. Will my right hon. Friend allow a debate on the matter?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I must admit that the problem that he describes had not previously come to my attention, although I can well understand why it would cause anxiety and discontent. Although I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate, I draw my hon. Friend's attention to the fact that we shall have two days' debate-5 and 6 July—on the Finance Bill. He may find an opportunity to raise the issue then.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Although I appreciatively reinforce the request of my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) for a debate on policing in London, I understand that, next week, because of the creation of the Welsh Assembly, the Standing Order underpinning the Select Committee on Welsh Affairs may fall. When might the Leader of the House contemplate having a debate on the report of the Select Committee on Procedure introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Macclesfield (Mr. Winterton)?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for drawing my attention to the issue, as I had not been aware that the Standing Order might fall. Also, I certainly take his point about the interest in the report of the Select Committee on Procedure, and am mindful that such reports are important and should be considered by the House. Equally, he will understand that there is great time pressure, particularly at the end of the Session. I therefore cannot give him the undertaking he seeks, but undertake to bear the matter in mind.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Before the end of the Session, will my right hon. Friend take back to the relevant Committee the whole question of Members of Parliament not having the right to speak in the House about their visit to an overseas territory if that visit was not made with the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association or the Inter-Parliamentary Union? It is slightly absurd that, although the House of Commons will know who is paying for a particular trip—it will be recorded—the hon. Members involved cannot raise any issue about that particular country. As, presumably, the whole point of hon. Members travelling the globe is to get a mild inkling of what is going on—[HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear."]—would it not be sensible at least to look at the rule again?

Mrs. Beckett

I am mindful of the great anxiety in the House that there should be absolute probity and transparency. I am not sure whether I ought to say this, but I have considerable sympathy with the point that my hon. Friend has raised. It is not entirely clear to me what would be the mechanism or how easy it would be to trigger re-examination of these matters. However, some hon. Members are involved in discussing them and they may like to take her observations on board, as well as the clear welcome that her words received across the House and in all parties. It is important for us to have the highest possible standards but, equally, as my hon. Friend said, if hon. Members have a valuable contribution to make and the position is clear and known, I understand her observations and her concern.

Rev. Martin Smyth (Belfast, South)

You will know, Madam Speaker, that I have been pressing for a debate on Northern Ireland for quite some time as Question Time does not allow us to examine certain issues. The Leader of the House may be aware that police salaries have been increased by 4.5 per cent. and that 80 per cent. of the Royal Ulster Constabulary's expenditure goes on personnel; yet, as a result of budgetary pressure, the police are not now able to do neighbourhood patrols. That is because the House is not aware that the RUC is still focused primarily on dealing with those who are disturbing the peace and on terrorism. May I press the Leader of the House for a debate and express the desire that, in the coming days, the Government do not travel down the road of "hope so" rather than that of reality?

Mrs. Beckett

I shall certainly add the hon. Gentleman's representations to those that I have already received requesting a debate. I understand his point about the work of the RUC. With regard to his final words, almost everyone in the House hopes that there can be agreement in Northern Ireland because the alternative is too awful to contemplate.

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley)

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, in Kashmir, there are still incursions and problems between India and Pakistan. There is grave concern as both countries now have nuclear power and ballistic missiles. Is there any possibility of a debate on that critical situation before the recess?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate, although my hon. Friend's concern about the problems and the fighting in Kashmir is shared across the House. Everyone hopes that the talks that have been taking place will ease some of the difficulties. However, although I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate, no doubt we will have a pre-recess debate and my hon. Friend may have the opportunity to raise the matter then.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Does the right hon. Lady agree that it would be helpful to Ministers to have a debate in the House about the way in which they announce new business, new proposals and new policies outside the House? She must be aware that there is increasing concern about the propensity of Ministers to make announcements outside the House. Not only does that allow them to avoid questioning by right hon. and hon. Members, but, inevitably, it diminishes the standing of the House of Commons with regard to the Government and enhances the role of the media and the areas where the announcements are made.

I hope that the right hon. Lady agrees that this is becoming an urgent and important matter. It need not be a long debate; a fairly short one would suffice, but it would help to clarify in the minds of Ministers what their responsibilities are and what their relationship with the House of Commons should be, and stop this distressing trend that seems to be going unnoticed and unchecked.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

It was always the same.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate. I entirely share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) that it was ever thus. The statistics show that Ministers in this Government have made far more statements to the House than their predecessors did.

Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

My right hon. Friend will know that the export of arms to countries with bad human rights records is an important issue for many of us. Preventing such exports was also an important plank in the Labour Government's ethical foreign policy. Does she have any information on when the report on strategic arms exports for 1998 will be published and whether we shall have a debate in the House on it? The report for 1997 appeared two years late. One reason given was a problem with the computers. Is there still a problem with the computers, or can we expect the 1998 report to be published before the recess?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not aware of the likely publication date. Happily, I am also not aware of whether there is still a problem with the computers. The delay to which my hon. Friend referred arose because of problems not only with the computers but with the records, which were time-consuming to resolve. I do not know whether the problems have been resolved sufficiently to enable a date to be set for the publication of the next report, but I shall draw her request to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary.

Mr. Brian Cotter (Weston-super-Mare)

I am sure that hon. Members know that, this week, we suffered our first losses of service men in Kosovo—Sergeant Balaram Rai and Lieutenant Gareth Evans of 69 Gurkha Squadron. I am sure that the whole House joins me in expressing condolences to the families. Lieutenant Evans came from my constituency—in fact, he was from Congresbury, the village in which I live. I hope that his family will gain some consolation from the selflessness and bravery that he showed during the action. There will be a debate on Thursday of next week on armed service personnel. Will the Leader of the House and the Secretary of State for Defence ensure that that opportunity is taken to address the grave concerns about the safety of personnel in the difficult circumstances in Kosovo? I look forward to hearing some words to that effect.

Mrs. Beckett

The whole House will wish to express its sympathy and to agree with what the hon. Gentleman said about recognising the bravery of those who have suffered and about sending condolences to the families concerned. I shall draw his wish for those concerns to be reflected in next week's debate to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Three hours ago, I received a faxed letter from the military aircraft division of British Aerospace, telling me that 880 jobs will be lost at Warton in Lancashire and a total of 2,200 jobs will go across the division. A decision has been made to build Eurofighter—more than 230 planes are going to the RAF at a cost of £40 million each, and more than £10,000 million of public money is being spent, most of which is going to British Aerospace. It is incomprehensible that there should be such major restructuring at the same time, with lots of jobs being lost. Aerospace is the life-blood of Lancashire. Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early debate to discuss the important matter of aerospace and restructuring in detail?

Mrs. Beckett

I am sorry to learn of the matters raised by my hon. Friend. As he knows from experience, I well understand the importance of the aerospace industry in his part of the country. Restructuring in the aerospace industry is a matter of interest to many across the House. However, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for an early debate. My hon. Friend will be aware of the process by which hon. Members seek to raise issues of wider concern for which a longer debate might be appropriate. Knowing his assiduity on behalf of his constituents, I am sure that he will pursue that avenue.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

The Leader of the House will be aware that the Secretary of State for Education and Employment is in the mood to name and shame. You, Madam Speaker, will be as delighted as I am that my county of Lincolnshire, under the enlightened control of Councillor Speechley and his team, does rather well in the right hon. Gentleman's list. Given that naming and shaming, will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on the steps that the Government are taking to reduce bureaucracy and red tape in our schools? I do not say that the problem started in 1997 but, as I go round schools, teachers tell me that it is getting worse. They are suffering from initiative fatigue. Heads want to be left to lead and teachers want to be left to teach. In the context of that debate, may we have a list of shame of those Ministers who have not only increased their personal bureaucracy with extra special advisers and lackeys, but imposed extra bureaucracy and red tape on the public and private sectors?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that my right hon. Friend has done a great deal to reduce the amount that the Government spend on bureaucracy and red tape. I know that he will be pleased that his authority comes out of the tables well, but he will also know that they show 31 authorities delegating less than 80 per cent., with Tory Westminster the worst at 75 per cent. As to the hon. Gentleman's further remarks, I simply say that the Government seek to run an efficient and tight ship, and do so.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the energy industry, especially on mis-selling by domestic gas suppliers? Many problems in my constituency arise from the unscrupulous tactics used by companies to trick people into changing their supplier. Those companies then make it extremely difficult for the customer to return to the original supplier. I am sure that many other hon. Members know of such problems and I hope that, following such a debate, the Government might feel it necessary to take some action to curb such rogue companies.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand and sympathise with my hon. Friend's point and her pressure for a debate to focus attention on such matters. However, the matter lies very much within the responsibility of the regulator who, I know, has expressed concern about it in the past. I shall draw my hon. Friend's concern to the attention of the relevant Minister, but I am sure that she has also taken action to draw it to the regulator's attention.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Will the Leader of the House consider finding time for the Secretary of State for Health to make a statement to the House about the lack of variety in artificial limbs supplied by the NHS, particularly for children? I have in mind the case of my eight-year-old constituent, Laura Giddings, who, the right hon. Lady may be aware, lost her leg in the blast in the Planet Hollywood explosion in South Africa. Limbs have to be replaced frequently as a child grows but, because nothing available on the NHS looks realistic, the child's psychological trauma is greatly increased. In such a statement, the Secretary of State could explain why, if money is the problem, parents who decide to pay privately for a better-quality limb should not be given at least an amount equivalent to the cost of an NHS limb, which they would have had free. That arrangement applies to wheelchairs, so why cannot it apply to artificial limbs for children?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to ask my right hon. Friend to make a statement or to raise a debate on the matter in the near future because there is so much pressure on the House's time. However, the whole House will sympathise with the point made by the hon. Gentleman. I imagine that he has drawn it to the attention of my right hon. Friend, but I will add to that the sympathy that is felt across the House.

Ms Joan Ryan (Enfield, North)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate next week on Europe? It is extremely important that we have such a debate at an early stage because of the extremism of the Conservative party on Europe, as it seeks to abandon the right-wing European People's party in search of more extreme friends elsewhere. It is important that all our MEPs can represent the best interests of the British people, taking the lead from the Labour Government. I fail to see how any Conservative MEP—given the position of the parliamentary Conservative party—can represent the best interests of the British people in Europe.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's desire for such a debate, and it would be attractive to spend time focusing on both the extremism and the division within the parliamentary Conservative party, whether here or in the European Parliament. However, tempting such a thought may be, I fear that it is a luxury for which I cannot, at present, offer to find time.

Mr. William Ross (East Londonderry)

Given that the Government have clearly made contingency plans to change the business next week should there be agreement in Northern Ireland, and in the light of the serious threat of violence from Mr. Adams, which was published in The Times yesterday, have the Government made contingency plans to ensure that any violence perpetrated by the IRA or other terrorist organisations, if there is no agreement and if they do not get their own way, can be contained to ensure that the law-abiding people of Northern Ireland enjoy peace and quiet over the next few weeks?

Mrs. Beckett

Government plans for eventualities in Northern Ireland are the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland—they do not fall at my door. The announcement that I made was for the business of the House to accommodate the eventuality of an order needing to be laid because agreement had been reached. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman shares the hope of all in the House that agreement will be reached.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the launch of the rural audit last week. This publication was commissioned by the many Labour Members who now represent rural or semi-rural constituencies. Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that it would be timely for the House to have a proper debate, ahead of the autumn publication of the expected White Paper on rural affairs? The Government have committed themselves to addressing the many problems in rural Britain that we inherited from the previous Government. Would it not be helpful for the House to debate this matter before the summer, so as to inform the decisions to be made in the production of the White Paper?

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of the launch of that document, which was an excellent piece of work and a credit to my hon. Friends who represent rural areas and who are doing so much to bring their concerns to the attention of the House. I understand my hon. Friend's concern that it would be timely for him and his colleagues to have a debate on those matters before the autumn. I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate, but my hon. Friend may like to bear in mind that, at some point in the autumn, an alternative forum will open in Westminster Hall. He may like to put in an early bid for it.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

The Government promised an integrated transport policy, but this last week has been awful for Britain's travelling public. It seems that the Deputy Prime Minister is losing out at every turn to the Treasury. More than £30 billion is taken from the transport industry, and less than £6 billion is put back. There have been ghastly problems on the tube and we have had the embarrassment of the Prime Minister zooming down a bus lane to avoid queues. In Shropshire, I continue to receive desperate representations from the haulage industry, and there is a £94 million backlog on Shropshire's rural roads. Could we have an urgent debate on the disintegrating transport policy of the Deputy Prime Minister?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman seems not to have noticed that I have announced a debate—next week, I think—on transport, in Opposition time. No doubt he will seek to catch your eye then, Madam Speaker.

I doubt that the £94 million backlog on Shropshire's roads arose since the general election. Before the general election, as we travelled around the countryside meeting people in the business community, we found that among their most pressing concerns was the desperate need for long-term investment in the transport infrastructure, which they had despaired of ever getting from the previous Government. It takes time to turn these things around.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Albeit that, in Treasury questions, the Chief Secretary told my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, North (Mr. Corbyn) that he had to wait for the answer to my question, Question 29, What (a) has been and (b) he estimates will be the effect on the Contingency Fund of (i) the conflict in Kosovo and (ii) the measures to be taken following the peace agreement relating to Kosovo", that question, alas, was, astonishingly, not reached. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Defence Secretary to give a proper answer next Thursday on what are the costs so far and the likely costs not only of Kosovo, but of obligations that this country seems to be accruing towards the former Yugoslavia?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend identifies a genuine difficulty for Ministers, in that it would not always be right to pre-empt an answer due to be given on a later question in response to a supplementary question from someone else, as that can cause resentment. I know, however, that he was making a different point of substance about information that he seeks from my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I will draw to my right hon. Friend's attention the fact that he is almost certain to be asked that question next Thursday.

Miss Anne McIntosh (Vale of York)

Will the Leader of the House find time for an early debate on the new meat hygiene charges? The fact that a fully qualified veterinary surgeon must be present when animals are slaughtered has had the most devastating effect in the Vale of York, and the few remaining small abattoirs are likely to close soon if the charges remain. The cost of slaughtering animals has more than doubled since 1 April, even though the charges should not have been introduced until next year. That is making our producers much less competitive, as the Charges do not apply to the producers of imported meat.

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware of those concerns. The Government are reviewing the charges and an announcement is expected shortly. Agriculture questions are on 1 July and a further opportunity to press my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food may arise then.

Mr. David Drew (Stroud)

I associate myself with the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for North-West Norfolk (Dr. Turner) and the response of my right hon. Friend.

Can we have a debate on prescription charges? After consultation with my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Health and for Education and Employment, will my right hon. Friend consider having a debate on the way in which prescription charges affect those in receipt of a student loan? I want to raise the case of my constituent, Lucy Little of Nailsworth, who, because she is from a single-parent family and has to pay her way through university partly by working, now has to pay prescription charges, whereas better-off students who receive money from their parents get free prescriptions.

Mrs. Beckett

I hear and understand my hon. Friend's identification with the rural audit report. I agree that it was excellent.

I am aware that difficulties often arise with prescription charges, although I am obviously not familiar with my hon. Friend's specific constituency case. I fear that I am unlikely to find time for a debate on the matter in the near future, but I am sure that he will look for other opportunities to raise it.

Mr. Michael Fabricant (Lichfield)

May we have an urgent debate on education, following the astonishing press release by the Secretary of State for Education and Employment, which states: Blunkett challenges LEAs on red tape spending"? Is the Leader of the House aware that the Secretary of State has managed a double whammy of outrageous proportions? He has upset all the local education authorities by his inconsistent and spurious definition of central expenditure and he also continues to alienate teachers, who do not see any extra money trickling down to the classrooms and are suffocating under the daily notes that come from the DfEE instructing them what to do next.

Mrs. Beckett

As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment has made clear, local authorities were invited to supply the information that has been published and it was repeatedly cross-checked with them. He has also made it plain that, if there is some concern about the accuracy of that information, he will be more than happy for local authorities to publish what they believe to be the accurate figures so that people can examine the two cases side by side. That is a sensible approach. As for teachers not seeing money flowing to schools, I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware of the dramatic decline in class sizes for the youngest children, which was the key pledge made by the Government at the election. The hon. Gentleman mentioned teachers suffering under central control, but we all know who started that.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that nothing is more important for next Thursday than the special debate on providing devolved powers to the settlement in Northern Ireland? Nobody, certainly on this side of the House, would argue with that. However, in the event of that not happening—I hope that it does—what will be the position of all those people in the Assembly in Northern Ireland who will continue to be paid for producing what appears to be, for the past 12 months, nothing less than gridlock?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not entirely sure of the answer to that question. Everybody shares the view that few things could be more important within the United Kingdom than to see a settlement in Northern Ireland. I find it hard to believe that more than a handful of people would wish not to see that settlement endorsed, and the vast majority of people, wherever they live in these isles, wish to see a settlement that puts behind us the pain, violence and brutality that has disfigured that province for so long.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Will the Leader of the House ask the Deputy Prime Minister to make a statement on the National Air Traffic Service? Last summer, an announcement was made that the service would be sold off. Since then, the proposal has received major criticism from the unions and many Labour Back Benchers. When will the Labour party's disagreements on the issue be resolved so that we can have either a decision to proceed or another Government U-turn, because the lack of progress is causing a loss of confidence in that important service?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to provide an early announcement on that matter, but I will undertake to draw my right hon. Friend's attention to the concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman. I am not sure which side he is on, as—if I recall correctly—the proposal was originally made by the Conservative Government. For the Conservatives to reverse their position would be not unusual, but commonplace.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

Will the Leader of the House confirm that the report by the urban task force chaired by Lord Rogers will be issued on Tuesday? Will she find time for an urgent debate on that report, on where we are to put the 3.8 million houses that we are told we will need in the next 20 years, and on whether ways can be found to encourage people to build them in the north-east and north-west of England which are economically so demanding of them? In that debate, would it also be possible to examine the scarcely credible claims of the Deputy Prime Minister to be the guardian of the countryside?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not aware of the timetable suggested by the hon. Gentleman. Of course, the House shares his concern about the issues of planning and housing, but I reject any suggestion that my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister is a less than worthy guardian of the countryside. He is a worthy guardian of all our interests.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

May we have an early opportunity to debate the high price that is being paid for the Prime Minister's gimmicks? Would that give us an opportunity to discuss the revelation today by leading general practitioners that it costs as much for one patient to contact NHS Direct as a general practitioner receives for serving that patient for a whole year? That is a misdirection of resources which has been condemned by GPs, who say that the money would be better spent by them on behalf of their patients instead of in pursuit of a gimmick by the Government.

Will the Leader of the House also update us on the progress of the electronic commerce Bill? Has control of the Bill been transferred from the Department of Trade and Industry to the spooks at the Home Office?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman has submitted two separate requests for a debate. I can assure him that, when the Government have something to announce about e-commerce, we will announce it.

I was surprised and disappointed to hear the hon. Gentleman describe NHS Direct as a gimmick when it is an extremely worthwhile and potentially very valuable initiative. I am not aware that many general practitioners condemn it. With regard to the general tone of the hon. Gentleman's remarks, I thought it wrong and odd for him to talk about my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister as someone for ever churning out gimmicks, given his recent record in handling very serious international events in Yugoslavia and Ireland.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the Leader of the House arrange an early statement from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment on the failure of the Government's so-called new deal? A person who completes its training and education option is twice as likely not to find a job as to find one. Youth unemployment has risen in every quarter since the national introduction of the new deal. Moreover, almost half of those who participate in the new deal receive absolutely no benefit whatsoever from it. Is it not time that the Secretary of State made a statement accepting the verdict of the Business Services Association, which represents companies with an annual turnover of £8 billion? That organisation's verdict was that the new deal "is not working". Is it not time that the Secretary of State owned up to the fact that his flagship has sunk?

Mrs. Beckett

That is a long and elaborate request for what I assume is an urgent debate. I do not accept any of the hon. Gentleman's arguments, so I do not accept that there is a need for an urgent debate. The desperate wish of Conservative Members that the new deal should be a failure is a little sad. They want young people who languished in unemployment without hope for many years under a Conservative Government to remain without hope. The Government are not prepared to give up on them. We have put substantial resources into a scheme that is better and more successful than any in this country for many a long year—better, in fact, than any scheme ever before. It is disappointing that Conservative Members would rather gloat over the supposed failure of a scheme than welcome the success of the young people involved in it.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on the worrying contrast between statistics developed by the House of Commons Library and the Government's statistical analyses? As was evident in the response by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury to my hon. Friend the Member for Lichfield (Mr. Fabricant) during Treasury questions, those two sets of statistics are wholly in conflict. Will the right hon. Lady find time for the House to determine whether the statistics department of the Library is in urgent need of repair, or whether it is the statistics departments of Government services—or the recollections of Ministers—that are in urgent need of repair?

Mrs. Beckett

When we are talking about accuracy in the handling of financial matters, my own recollection is clear. The hon. Gentleman may recall that members of the Conservative Government—they are now on the Opposition Benches—could not be trusted to give reliable statistics and information. One of the tasks willingly undertaken by the Government was to clean up and restore to independence the Government statistical service.

I understand that the hon. Gentleman's premise—that there is a conflict between statistics produced by the Library and the underlying case presented by the Government's Treasury team—is contested.