HC Deb 13 May 1999 vol 331 cc415-31 12.31 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

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

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

MONDAY 17 MAY—Remaining stages of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill.

TUESDAY 18—There will be a debate on Kosovo on a motion for the Adjournment of the House

WEDNESDAY 19 MAY—Until 12.30 pm, there will be a debate on the third report from the Health Committee on the welfare of former British child migrants, followed by a debate on the fifth report from the Environment, Transport and Regional Affairs Committee on regional Eurostar services. Followed by debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Opposition Day [13th Allotted Day].

Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate on fraud in the European Union budget, followed by a debate entitled "Conditions of Service of NHS Personnel". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

THURSDAY 20 MAY—There will be a debate on the White Paper on reforming the House of Lords on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 21 MAY—Private Members' Bills.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows: MONDAY 24 MAY—Until about 7 o'clock, Second Reading of the Commonwealth Development Corporation Bill [Lords].

Motion to approve the second report from the Modernisation Committee on sittings of the House in Westminster Hall.

TUESDAY 25 MAY—There will be a debate on the European Union on a motion for the Adjournment of the House. I remind the House that that is the pre-Cologne debate

WEDNESDAY 26 MAY—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.

Motion to approve the first report from the Administration Committee on the proposal to reopen the line of route during the summer Adjournment.

Motion relating to Members' travel to EU institutions.

Motion on financial assistance to Opposition parties.

Motion on the parliamentary contributory pension fund.

The House will also wish to know that on Wednesday 19 May there will be a debate on assistance to new independent states and Mongolia in European Standing Committee B. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 19 May:

European Standing Committee B—Relevant European Union document: 5263/99, Assistance to NIS and Mongolia; Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Reports: HC 34-xi, HC 34-xiii (1998-99).]

When I said two weeks ago that the House would rise for the Whitsun recess at the end of business on Thursday 27 May, I said that that would be subject to the progress of business. Again, subject to the progress of provisional business, I hope that the House may now rise at the end of business on Wednesday 26 May and return, as previously announced, on Tuesday 8 June.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful to the Leader of the House for announcing next week's business and for indicating the provisional business for the following week, and her qualified reassurance about the Whitsun recess.

I welcome the right hon. Lady's response to my request for regular statements and debates on Kosovo and the finding of time for a debate on Tuesday. However, what has happened to the planned debates on defence in the world and on personnel matters in the armed forces?

When the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport answers questions on Monday will he clarify the confusion as to what he said to Mr. Greg Dyke about the job of Director-General of the BBC? Has the right hon. Lady seen Mr. Dyke's letter in The Independent today, which states that the Minister's written parliamentary answer on Monday was "slightly misleading"? Mr. Dyke goes on to assert: Mr. Smith asked me whether I was likely to be a candidate. Is the House not entitled to a fuller explanation of what has been going on?

Further to my question last week, will the right hon. Lady tell the House what arrangements she proposes for debates on public expenditure and the economy? The House is entitled to an answer and we have been pressing for a reply for some time.

Last Thursday, when I asked about the inquiry into the leak of Macpherson report, which occurred more than two and a half months ago, with a limited number of suspects, the right hon. Lady said: I remind the right hon. Gentleman that it is not an inquiry into anything that the Government have done". Will she therefore confirm that Home Office Ministers have been exonerated from leaking the document and will she ask the Home Secretary to report the full outcome of the inquiry before the Whitsun recess?

Last week, I also asked about the freedom of information Bill and the right hon. Lady replied: I … hope to be able to report soon on the freedom of information Bill."—[Official Report, 6 May 1999; Vol. 330, c. 1090.] Will the House get a statement from the Home Secretary on Thursday?

Finally, will the right hon. Lady assure the House that if there are any important changes in Government policy next week, the appropriate Minister will make a statement to the House? Before the last election, the present Foreign Secretary said of Labour's policy on the Tote, I can authoritatively bring down the curtain on this story. There will be no proposal to sell the Tote. Was it not a discourtesy to the House to slip out a total reversal of policy on an important national institution by way of a written question?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for welcoming the debate on Kosovo. I can assure him that we have not lost sight of the undertaking to find time for debates on defence in the world, or indeed on personnel, but he will appreciate that we are trying to balance the need for those debates, which we fully recognise, with keeping the House up to date on events in Kosovo.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me about what he described as "confusion" over Mr. Greg Dyke's application to be Director-General of the BBC. I have seen his letter and 1 see no confusion in it. To ask what has been going on suggests that the right hon. Gentleman supports conspiracy theories, of which I had not suspected him. As he said, he will have the opportunity to ask my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport about those matters should he wish to do so.

I am continuing to pursue the issue of debates on public expenditure. The right hon. Gentleman has certainly been pressing for that matter to be resolved for some little time. I sympathise. I recall having precisely the same experience when the previous Government changed their policy and withdrew the arrangements for debating public expenditure. To the best of my recollection, during all the time that I remained shadow Chief Secretary and until the subsequent election, we were never able to persuade the then Government to resolve the matter, so I have some sympathy with the right hon. Gentleman and can assure him that I will report to the House as soon as I can.

The right hon. Gentleman asked me to confirm whether there would be a statement next week on the freedom of information Bill. Obviously, such matters are subject to progress, but I certainly hope that that will be possible in the very near future and that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary will make a full statement.

I reject the charge of discourtesy. The right hon. Gentleman quoted some observations that my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary made before the election. The Home Secretary, or whoever is responsible, has made the position on the Tote clear. While I sympathise with the request for a statement on absolutely every matter that comes along, the Government must balance when we make statements and when we find time for debates. We will continue to do so to the best of our ability.

Mrs. Gwyneth Dunwoody (Crewe and Nantwich)

Would my right hon. Friend like to assure me, particularly in the light of the motion on the Order Paper on the size of the quorum for Select Committees, that Her Majesty's Government not only support the work of those Committees but consider them to be of considerable importance? Since more and more members of Select Committees are being taken away from their sittings to sit on Committees considering Bills, when other hon. Members could readily take their place, will both usual offices please seriously consider whether they want that Committee system to work? If they do, some very hard thinking must take place about the organisation of the House of Commons.

Mrs. Beckett

I can certainly assure my hon. Friend that the Government place great importance on the work of Select Committees. From her question, I am not sure whether she is aware that the motion has been tabled in response to a request that went to the Chair of the Liaison Committee for endorsement from the Chair of a Select Committee that is pursuing a joint investigation because it believes that to be the most sensible course.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


Mrs. Beckett

It is matter for the right hon. Gentleman whether he thinks that that is outrageous. The Chairs of a number of Select Committees have officially made that request because they believe that it is the right way to tackle the business before them. The right hon. Gentleman proposes to second-guess their decision. I do not feel inclined to do so because that would not show respect for their judgment.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

We entirely endorse the comment of the Conservative spokesman on the scandalous way in which the announcement on privatisation of the Tote was made yesterday. We sought a statement then and would have been happy to afford some of our time today for one.

On the business, or non-business, on Thursday 27 May, I am surprised that the Leader of the House thinks that there is no necessity for the House to meet then. There are several pressing issues that Members on both sides of the House want to debate. For example, when does she plan to take the Report stage of the Immigration and Asylum Bill? Does she intend a two-day debate and will she seek, by consensus, a programme motion?

What is the Government's intention on the handling of referendums? I understand that the private Member Referendums Bill has passed all its stages. There is widespread concern throughout the House that we should regularise such matters. Will the Government afford all that Bill the support that it requires to reach the statute book this Session or introduce their own Bill?

Mrs. Beckett

First, I am sorry to learn that the hon. Gentleman shares the view of the Conservative party on the way in which the Tote announcement was made. I believe that Madam Speaker made the point yesterday that there is nothing remotely unusual about Ministers announcing proposals sometimes by written answer and sometimes by statements to the House. There is no discourtesy to the House in the method chosen.

Secondly, the hon. Gentleman pressed for the House to meet on Thursday 27 May and said that he was surprised that it would not. I shall bear in mind his passionate wish for the House to sit slightly longer. I would not normally say this, but I feel entitled to note that, as the attendance of his party is a little variable, I am surprised to learn that it is keen to sit on extra days.

I am not in a position to announce when we will take the Report stage of the Immigration and Asylum Bill but I realise that the Bill has substantial implications that the House will want properly to debate. A programme motion is a matter to be considered elsewhere. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman the undertaking that he sought on the private Member's Bill. Any Government are rightly cautious in their approach to such matters, but we will bring forward our own proposals in due course and, I hope, in good order.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

On next week's business on welfare and cuts in benefits, does my right hon. Friend know of any further discussions with a view to ensuring that what we have already heard from the Government is not the last word? Will further discussions continue? Does she accept that it is unfortunate that next week it is proposed on one day to cut benefits from new claimants while on another day the Government will spend money on the Balkans? Does she agree that it is not smart politics to be spending money on smart bombs while cutting benefit for people who are disabled?

Mrs. Beckett

May I welcome my hon. Friend back to business questions? The whole House expressed regret at his absence—although that may not entirely please him—when he was unable to be with us. I welcome him back to his place.

My hon. Friend has rightly said that we shall have a debate on welfare reform early next week. My understanding is that Ministers continue to discuss the range of issues and proposals contained in the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill with interested parties, including representatives of those people who suffer from disability. My hon. Friend refers to cuts in benefits for new claimants. I am sure that he is well aware that, as a result of the overall package that the Government are introducing, the amount paid in benefits will increase. However, I realise that there are concerns about the balance of that package. I can only say to my hon. Friend that discussion on those matters continues and that there will be a debate next week on which people can focus.

Mr. Oliver Heald (North-East Hertfordshire)

Will the Leader of the House find time next week for a debate on early-day motion 638?

[That this House notes with concern the incident on 6th May in which a large block of ice fell through the roof of Mr. and Mrs. Smith's home at Hare Street, Hertfordshire; further notes the concern of local residents about large blocks of ice and debris falling from aircraft onto their homes; and calls the Government to review safety procedures and provide immediate reassurance to the residents of Hertfordshire.] That motion is in my name and that of my right hon. Friend the Member for Hitchin and Harpenden (Mr. Lilley) and other Members representing Hertfordshire.

I want to highlight an event that took place recently in my constituency when my constituents, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, were asleep in the middle of the night and a large block of ice—apparently from an aircraft—crashed through their roof, destroying their bedside table and almost killing them. In that debate, would it be possible to seek a proper review of the procedures for aircraft safety in such circumstances? I want to press for some reassurance for other residents of Cottered, Ardeley and that part of my constituency, who are naturally worried that the same thing might happen to them.

Mrs. Beckett

I can only sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's constituents.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Of course, it has never happened before—May 1997?

Mrs. Beckett

As my hon. Friend points out from a sedentary position, such events have, sadly, happened in the past. I fear that I cannot offer the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald) a debate during Government time next week. I am sure that he is taking other opportunities to raise the matter and to press for the review and reassessment to which he referred. Indeed, if that leads him to press for further time in the House, it is of course open to him to request a formal Adjournment debate.

Ms Ruth Kelly (Bolton, West)

Will my right hon. Friend find time in the near future for a debate on widows entitlement to the state earnings-related pension scheme and on the appalling legacy left to the Labour Government by the Conservative Administration? Many former members of that Administration still sit on the Opposition Benches.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. She will be aware—as is the whole House—that the change now under way dates from 1986, although it was not publicised in Department of Social Security leaflets until 1996. I am not sure how fruitful a debate would be, because we do not have access to the papers of the previous Administration. We do not how it was possible for such a change, in effect, to be withheld from the public for so long. However, those who do know include the current Leader of the Opposition, who was an Under-Secretary and a Minister in the Department of Social Security, the deputy Leader of the Opposition, the shadow Home Secretary, the shadow Secretary of State for Health, the shadow Secretary of State for the Environment, the right hon. Members for Fylde (Mr. Jack), for Huntingdon (Mr. Major) and for Fareham (Sir P. Lloyd), the Opposition Chief Whip, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot) and, indeed, the hon. Member for North-East Hertfordshire (Mr. Heald)—all of whom were Ministers in the Department during the relevant period.

Mr. John Hayes (South Holland and The Deepings)

Will the Leader of the House make time for a debate on the controversy that is raging among disabled groups and charities? I am thinking especially about the recent resignations from the disability benefits forum in protest at Government policy. I know that we are having a debate next week about specific cuts, but people are asking for a bigger debate about the way in which disabled people increasingly feel badly treated by the Government. Those resignations were not undertaken lightly; the people who resigned are well-respected. As joint-chairman of the all-party group on disablement, I know that I speak exactly as Lord Ashley would do in criticism of the Government and their treatment of some of the most vulnerable people in our society.

Mrs. Beckett

I have great respect for the members of the disability benefits forum. I regret their decision to resign, as do the entire Government, although I understand that those individuals will continue to give advice and to discuss matters of policy detail. In the short term, the Labour Government will increase the resources for people with disabilities. During the benefit changes of the 1980s, the previous Conservative Government tried to introduce the biggest benefits cuts for the most severely disabled people that the country has ever known, so I will not accept any strictures from the Opposition.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

I have no difficulty with Tuesday's business, as I fully support the action that is being taken against the terrible crime of ethnic cleansing. I am sure that, if there were to be a vote, the action would receive overwhelming support in the House, as it does in the country.

On Monday's business, however, although as a Member in the previous Parliament I recognise that we require no lectures on the disabled from the Conservatives, whose shameful conduct many of us remember, is my right hon. Friend aware that there are certain aspects of the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill that I for one would find it extremely difficult to support in the Lobby? I do not suggest that she should depart from collective Cabinet responsibility, but would it be possible, between today and Monday, for the Secretary of State for Social Security to be made to understand Labour Members' deep feelings on the issue? I hope that he already recognises those feelings and that, on Monday, concessions will be offered that enable us to support the Government in the Lobby.

Mrs. Beckett

I am certainly conscious of the fact that my hon. Friend has a record on those issues that no Conservative Member can match; he has been as consistent in his concern about benefits for people with disabilities under the current Government as he was under the previous Government. I can assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security is highly conscious of people's anxiety that we get the balance right, and that our proposals effectively support people with disabilities where that support is required and assist them to a greater degree of independence where that is possible and practicable. I shall certainly draw to my right hon. Friend's attention the concern that my hon. Friend expresses.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we please have an urgent debate to get to the bottom of the issue of war widows pensions? Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Brentwood and Ongar (Mr. Pickles) questioned the Prime Minister on that matter and the Prime Minister's answer was, to say the least, obfuscatory. He failed to confirm that the review of the matter had been carried out, as promised in response to a question asked last year by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay). The Prime Minister then had the gall to tell the House that, whether or not a review had taken place, the matter could not dealt with because there was not enough money.

It strikes many as odd that a Government who can afford to spend several hundred million pounds on something as frivolous as the dome cannot find the money for something as serious as war widows pensions. We must have a debate to get to the bottom of the issue. It is obvious that questioning the Prime Minister on a Wednesday is not enough, because we do not get any answers from him, so we need a debate to ensure that the matter can be properly dealt with by the House, and not by the Prime Minister.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in the near future. Not for the first time, the right hon. Gentleman is in danger of shooting himself in the foot, for if we did have a debate, one of the first questions everyone would want answered is why the Conservative party did nothing for 18 years, but now want us to do something in 18 months.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Does the Leader of the House recollect all those fine words from several of our colleagues about sweeping away the cobwebs of precedent? is it true that researchers working on her behalf have been looking at the Crimean war, the Zulu wars, the Boer war and the first world war in an effort to scratch up precedents as to why there should not be a debate on a substantive motion in time of war, and why we should instead have a debate on the Adjournment of the House? Is there not a case for a substantive motion, which could be amended—for example, one that focused on the issue of depleted uranium?

Does my right hon. Friend recollect that, in Prime Minister's Question Time yesterday, the answer to Question 1—a substantive question on the Order Paper—was unintelligible? That was why I asked to raise the matter on a motion for the Adjournment. A subsequent study of Hansard reveals that the answer was indeed unintelligible. Therefore, should there not be some opportunity for a proper explanation of why a civilised society drops anti-personnel cluster bombs in the middle of the city of Nis and on other cities?

Finally, may we have some answer to the specific question that I put properly to the Secretary of State for International Development yesterday? The right hon. Lady did not say what would be done about the Danube or who would pay for cleaning it up; nor did she say who would pay the bill, which might be as much as $40 billion, for the eventual restoration of Kosovo and Serbia—now a wasteland.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend, with his usual parliamentary skill, has succeeded in asking me about five different questions, which stretch across the responsibilities of a number of Government Departments. There will be a debate—although focusing on Kosovo—next week when I am sure that he and others will seek to raise some of those issues, but I am sure that he will also appreciate that the range of matters, such as the pollution of the Danube, is very wide.

I believe that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister yesterday did make it plain that the United Kingdom does not use, did not use and is not using depleted uranium munitions in the Balkans. My hon. Friend then referred to other munitions, some of which we know have been used by various NATO forces.

My hon. Friend's first question related to precedent. I cannot tell him whether those who looked into the matter for me studied what happened during the Crimean war, because I did not ask them, but I can tell him that the research information that was made available to me specifically went back as far as the second world war. It indicated that "successive generations" have taken the view that, once British troops are engaged in conflict, the House discusses such matters on the Adjournment, not on a substantive motion.

Mr. Dalyell

Not at Suez.

Mrs. Beckett

With respect to my hon. Friend, the motion that was tabled in the context of Suez was debated, as I understand it, before our troops were committed and engaged. I am not aware of any precedent of a substantive motion being tabled when British troops were at risk.

I understand of course the argument that these matters should be reconsidered from time to time, and they have been. I understand of course hon. Members' wish to make their views known, although I have not observed that they have any difficulty in doing so. However, it remains the case that the precedent—it seems to me, for very sound reasons—is that as long as Members are not barred, as they are not, from expressing whatever view they wish to hold, in a free society, the House, as a House, has chosen not to debate a substantive motion when British troops are actually engaged in conflict. I believe that to be right.

Mr. Eric Pickles (Brentwood and Ongar)

Will the right hon. Lady reconsider her response to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth)? I believe that there is a need for a debate on the war widows pension for various reasons. The reasoning that the Prime Minister used in his response to the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) was wholly different from that which he used in his response to me. It is inadequate to talk about what the Conservatives did. The Prime Minister made a promise to the House that he would do something about the matter, and a year later he has done nothing about it.

At a time when our troops are engaged in dangerous action, our support for war widows should be unequivocal. I therefore ask the Leader of the House to take a serious look at the issue, to stop trying to score political points, and to honour the Prime Minister's pledge.

Mrs. Beckett

I am not trying to score political points; the hon. Gentleman undoubtedly is. We had a conflict in the Gulf when the Conservatives were in office. Indeed, we had a conflict in the Falklands when the Conservatives were in office. It smacks of hypocrisy for the hon. Gentleman to purport to make a great fuss in the House about the fact that, after two years, the Government have not done something which Conservative Governments did not do in 18 years.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

I associate myself with the points made by my hon. Friends the Members for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) and for Walsall, North (Mr. Winnick), but my question is on a different point.

My right hon. Friend will recollect that I drew to her attention, quoting another precedent, the fact that the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs had not met since 1978, and she was kind enough to say that she would review that matter. I understand that a proposal to recall that Standing Committee in some new form is before the Select Committee on Modernisation, and was referred to in a debate on Tuesday by the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, my hon. Friend the Member for Neath (Mr. Hain), as being part of the Government's constitutional reform programme. May I ask my right hon. Friend when she expects that it will be possible for that Committee to be recalled in some new form? She is well aware that there is considerable anticipation of that event among Members of Parliament from the English regions.

Hon. Members


Mrs. Beckett

As my hon. Friend will have observed from the noises off, our proposal to look again at the issue of the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs has met with some question, and the matter continues to be under discussion. I personally have great sympathy with my hon. Friend's point, and I can assure him that the matter is not dead. We are considering the implications, and whether we can put forward proposals that attract a good deal of support and common ground. We will continue that consideration. I hope that it will not take too long, and that we will be able to put proposals to the House in the not too distant future.

Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent)

Is the Leader of the House aware that the high commission for South Africa has found it necessary to set up a special unit to deal with problems occasioned by the incompetence of the passport and immigration units? I do not believe that I am the only Member with constituents who are being oppressed by the inefficiency that results in passports being lost and applications mislaid. Nothing is being done to alleviate the distress caused to many people by sheer incompetence. After two years of the present Government, may we have an assurance that we will have a debate on the matter or, better still, a marked improvement in the service?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is right—all hon. Members have had to deal with problems with the award and issuing of passports, as well as the handling of other immigration matters. Having had long experience of such matters, I can tell him that there is nothing new about the problems. He has clearly forgotten the time not long ago when a Home Office Minister had to admit that there were six months' worth of unopened applications for passports, never mind applications that were being dealt with. No one regrets that more than this Government, and no one is more determined than the Home Secretary to turn the matter round.

Mr. Rowe


Mrs. Beckett

We inherited the problems from the Government whom the hon. Gentleman supported. We are trying to resolve them as fast as we can.

Mr. Forth

Two years.

Mrs. Beckett

Yes, it is a mere two years, and the right hon. Gentleman is well aware, as he was a Minister in the previous Government, that the problems have existed a lot longer than that.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Does the Leader of the House recognise that there would be no need for a debate on war widows pensions and war disablement

pensions, if only someone in high office would examine the matter and acknowledge the perversity, which should be remedied swiftly, in the application of disregard by a few local authorities?

My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and the right hon. Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) have something in common, with all due respect to both of them: they are both mistaken. It is not a matter of public money and central Exchequer money. The vast majority of good local authorities offer a total disregard, but that is grossly unfair to the war widows and war disablement pensioners who live in a few local authorities that do not give a disregard.

The remedy is in our hands. At an early legislative opportunity we could put it right and ensure that there is parity of treatment throughout the United Kingdom for the beneficiaries of those pensions. Will my right hon. Friend ask the Prime Minister and our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to consider the matter again? If they do, they will see that we should not get dug into a trench about it, but that we should remedy it at the earliest opportunity.

Mrs. Beckett

I know that my hon. Friend has a long and honourable record of campaigning on the matter, and is familiar with all the details. I understand his point: it is often a matter for local discretion. I sympathise with the passion with which he expressed his views. However, we are presented with a dilemma. In general terms, with whatever degree of sincerity and effectiveness, hon. Members in all parts of the House recognise the right of local authorities to exercise a substantial degree of discretion in the decisions that they make about the use of their resources.

As my hon. Friend rightly said, some local authorities have chosen not to make such a decision, and as a result the balance is wrong. I can assure him that the matter is kept under review. I will draw his further observations to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister, who is the Secretary of State in the relevant Department. I cannot give him an undertaking, though, that a policy change is likely to follow speedily, or that I can find time for an early debate.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Will the Leader of the House put some pressure on Education Ministers to make a statement to the House on student tuition fees? One can understand the possible outrage in England if there was a change in Scotland and tuition fees were abolished. That would create an unfairness, because English students would have to pay and students at Scottish universities would not.

Last week I talked to the vice-chancellor of Bournemouth university, where enrolment is an associated issue. If people think that they will not have to pay fees in Scotland, but will have to pay in England, many English universities will be disadvantaged in terms of recruitment and running courses.

Mrs. Beckett

I am confident that my right hon. and hon. Friends at the Department for Education and Employment will certainly keep the House informed on those matters. The hon. Gentleman is leaping a little ahead of himself in his assumptions, but no doubt time will tell.

Mr. John Healey (Wentworth)

My right hon. Friend may recall the meningitis tragedy in Rotherham over Christmas and the new year: there were seven cases in nine days, and two students from a school in my constituency and one of their friends died from c-type meningitis. Can she find time for an early debate so that we can discuss recent reports that three new vaccines have completed their clinical trials, and the need for the Government to pull out all the stops in their own approval process so that we can at last begin, to protect our children and young people from this deadly disease?

Mrs. Beckett

I recall the tragic events to which my hon. Friend refers and know how hard he and his colleagues worked to bring them to the attention of the House and to support those who were affected. I have seen reports of the potential of the new vaccines, but I must admit that I had not fully taken on board my hon. Friend's point that they are at such an advanced stage that they are now eligible for Government approval.

My hon. Friend will be as conscious as I am of how often such press reports are over-optimistic in their assumptions about the time that such approvals take. However, I will certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, who will wish to act with dispatch if that is possible.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

May we find time next week for an urgent debate or statement on Government policy towards the British insurance industry following the devastating job losses announced on Monday by Axa Insurance? Is the Leader of the House aware that, for the small rural town of Kendal in my constituency, that announcement represents not only the complete loss of our largest single employer, but a doubling of local unemployment and the removal of £19 million from the local economy? Will she consult her Cabinet colleagues to see whether any urgent Government assistance can be provided to my constituents at this very sad time for our area?

Mrs. Beckett

Everyone in the House understands and sympathises with hon. Members and their constituents who find themselves in such circumstances because of the loss of a large number of jobs. I am aware of the scale and the impact of the changes to which the hon. Gentleman refers and I can assure him that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Employment and his colleagues do everything that they can to introduce the right kind of support and assistance to those on job search. I will certainly draw his remarks to their attention.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for an early debate on safety and health so that the House might have an opportunity to debate an investigative report into the operation of the Capper pass smelting plant run by Rio Tinto? The report has been prepared by Towells solicitors and its senior solicitor, Mr. David Russell. It shows clearly that the community around Capper pass has been contaminated by arsenic, heavy metals and radioactive materials and that its residents are suffering from cancer and leukaemia as a result. The report concludes that the operation of the plant has been a disaster for the community.

Mrs. Beckett

I am certainly very sorry to learn of the portent of the report to which my hon. Friend refers and the concerns that that must raise for his constituents and those of other hon. Members. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the matter in the near future, but he will be conscious that I have announced the date of the pre-recess debate and will be aware of other opportunities for Members to raise matters on the Adjournment. He may be able to catch your eye, Madam Speaker.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

I intend to call all hon. Members who are rising, but I am disappointed to note that, rather than putting direct questions, hon. Members are making long statements. As a result, business questions are going on for far too long.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

I will call all hon. Members, but I ask them to be brisk. They should not make long statements; they should ask the questions that they want to ask, and let us get on with things.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

Will my right hon. Friend consider arranging a debate on early-day motion 636?

[That this House expresses its alarm at the reported threat to organic farming in Britain posed by potential contamination from growing genetically-modified crops; notes the reports of the study commissioned by Government on organic farming and gene transfer from genetically-modified crops; further notes the Government's increased support for organic farming and the expanding consumer market in organic food; and calls on the Government to do everything in its power to protect this vital farming sector and the public's ability to choose organic food.]

The motion deals with organic farming and contamination from genetically modified organisms, and also notes the Government's increased support for organic farming. As my right hon. Friend will recall, the Prime Minister said yesterday that under the present Government there had been an eightfold increase in support for organic farming, and a fivefold increase in the amount of land being devoted to organic production. That is extremely welcome in my constituency, but there is concern about contamination from genetically modified organisms.

Mrs. Beckett

I can reassure my hon. Friend that the Government are studying the matter very carefully. We will do as much as we can, with the assistance and support to which he has referred. I have no doubt that he will continue to keep us up to the mark.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

Can the right hon. Lady find time for an urgently needed debate on ward closures in the national health service, with particular reference to this week's announcement of the decision to close two of the three wards at Altrincham general hospital? The announcement was made following no public consultation whatever; it was made three days after local elections that were very closely fought; and the community health council is now seeking, possibly, to mount a challenge to it.

I understand from the chairman of the community health council that the chief executive of the trust made it clear that the closures were due to the need to find extra funds because of the Government's failure to finance the nurses' pay award. Given the circumstances, I suspect that we shall see more hospital closures around the country. It is vital for us to have a debate; may we have one soon?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to find time for that special debate, but the hon. Gentleman can seek to raise the matter on the Adjournment. I advise him to remember when he does so that the Government did fully fund the pay award, which contrasts with the Conservative party's record on both the granting of awards and the funding of them. As for the notion that local authority elections in some way governed a decision made by a health authority, there is no relationship between the two. I should have thought that the hon. Gentleman would know that. Local authorities do not run hospitals.

Mr. Phil Hope (Corby)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on NHS waiting lists? That might be a more fruitful subject.

Despite the financial pressures, Kettering general hospital, which serves my constituents, has met its targets in regard to waiting lists. It was announced this week that waiting lists had fallen by nearly a quarter of a million since May 1998. During the debate for which I have asked, Labour Members might like to reflect on the fact that we are only 15,000 short of the pledge made in May 1997 to cut waiting lists overall by 100,000. I should particularly like to hear the Opposition's views on waiting lists and the national health service: I should like to know exactly what their policies are on public spending and private health care.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a strong case for a debate, which tempts me. He is entirely right: not only have waiting lists fallen substantially, but, as a result of tremendous achievements by health service staff, waiting times have as well. The Government clearly have a great deal to boast about.

I fear that I cannot promise my hon. Friend an extra debate, but he may have noticed that the Opposition have decided to debate these matters next week, and he may bear that in mind.

Mr. Howard Flight (Arundel and South Downs)

In view of yesterday's particularly strident address to London by Commissioner Monti, will the Leader of the House please ask the Chancellor to make a full, clear and unequivocal statement about the Government's policy on the proposed European Union withholding tax?

Mrs. Beckett

I did not hear the Commissioner's statement, but "strident" does not sound like Commissioner Monti to me; he has always struck me as a remarkably quiet man.

There is no doubt—as the Chancellor has repeatedly made clear, and will go on making clear—that we are fighting hard to defend Britain's national interest, and will continue to do so.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

The response of the Leader of the House to my hon. Friend the Member for Arundel and South Downs (Mr. Flight) was almost as risible as the Chancellor's response at Question Time.

Will the right hon. Lady reconsider, and arrange an early debate in Government time on the proposed withholding tax on savings income? Does she understand that such a debate would give the Chancellor an opportunity to declare unequivocally that he will veto—a word that he declines to use—any such proposed withholding tax, on which Mario Monti is insisting? Does the right hon. Lady recognise that no pathetic compromise whereby exchange of information between European Union member states is countenanced, or even whereby large-scale institutional investors are exempted, would be satisfactory to Conservative Members? We do not want this tax, which threatens 10,000 jobs including a number of my Buckingham constituents who work in the City. Say no, and veto.

Mrs. Beckett

I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was in for Treasury Questions, although I know he normally is, but my understanding is that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer answered a question on the matter and made the Government's position plain, as he has repeatedly. The Government are, of course, sympathetic to the aim of dealing with tax evasion and are prepared to enter into discussions on those matters, but we have made it absolutely plain that we do not support the imposition of such a tax; that we are very concerned about damage to the national interest; and that we will defend that interest. As for the notion of accepting a pathetic compromise, the Conservatives were the experts at that.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Would it be possible to arrange for an early debate on local government and the denial of democracy, so that I could raise the issue of what is going on in Preston council? At the beginning of the year, two Labour councillors defected from the controlling group and the Labour party lost overall control. A few days later, a Liberal Democrat defected to the Labour party, by which the Labour party regained control.

At the elections on Thursday, the result was no overall control. On the night of the count—indeed, at the count—a Liberal Democrat defected to the Labour party and the Labour party regained control. The next day, the same defector became an independent and a Liberal Democrat joined the Labour party.

All I can say is that, at 11 o'clock today, the state of play was that Preston council was under no overall control, but I am conscious that more than two hours have elapsed, so anything could have happened. Is it not a denial of democracy to the people of Preston that their wishes are being totally ignored while their elected representatives are playing political musical chairs?

Mrs. Beckett

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman over the fact that, after all his campaigning, the Conservatives did not succeed in taking control of Preston council. I am sure that he is terribly upset about that, but I fear that I cannot find time to debate it.

Mr. Keith Simpson (Mid-Norfolk)

Will the Leader of the House please make time for either the Foreign Secretary or the Secretary of State for Defence to come to the House and to brief us on this morning's reports in the paper that the joint Liberal-Labour Cabinet sub-committee appears to be taking forward policy on European defence? That is not only a discourtesy to the House, but very strange when NATO is attempting to carry out military action against Serbia. Can we please have a statement as soon as possible on that matter?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not think that there is any need for a statement. There is no dispute that NATO must remain the bedrock of our security. Nothing in the announcement about how we should pursue European defence co-operation is in any way distinct from what was said, for example, in the recent Washington summit declaration. In consequence, the House will be conscious that that is a reaffirmation of the importance of joint work on the matter.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Since the reality of the arrival of the new Assembly in Wales and the Scottish Parliament has sunk in, many people in the border areas who live near me have asked what the role of Members of Parliament for constituencies in Wales and Scotland will be? May we have a debate on the three Rs: the role, responsibility and remuneration of Welsh and Scottish Members of Parliament now that so many of their tasks have been handed over to the Members of those new institutions?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not sure where the hon. Gentleman was, but I think that his party had a debate on the matter—or some party had a debate on it—this week. I cannot offer to have another in the near future.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

The Prime Minister said yesterday that he is pondering the consequences of the electoral system that the Government have introduced in Scotland and in Wales. Does the Leader of the House think that she could find time next week for the Prime Minister—if he has completed his ruminations—to share his conclusions by explaining in a statement to the House what is fair, representative and democratic about a system that evidently is enabling the party that came first to abandon manifestos, shed commitments, carve up power and distribute ministerial posts not to the party that came second, or even to the party that came third, but to the party—the Liberal Democrats—that came a very poor fourth?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the hon. Gentleman's strong feelings on the matter—he has frequently aired them in the House—but perhaps he did not notice that, if it had not been for the system introduced, the Conservative party would not have had any representation in those bodies. Various conclusions could have been drawn from such an outcome.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

The right hon. Lady has announced another Opposition day for next week. When considering future Opposition days, will she be able to take any action to ensure that those occasions are used for their proper purpose—to oppose the Government—and not to attack the official Opposition? Indeed, should not future Liberal Democrat Opposition days be in Government time, not Opposition time?

Mrs. Beckett

I am certainly not prepared to give an undertaking that I shall find extra Government time for such debates. Although I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman's feeling, it is a matter of private grief on which I feel disinclined to intrude.