HC Deb 20 May 1999 vol 331 cc1213-26 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 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—Debate on the European Union on a motion for the Adjournment of the House—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 re-open 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 quorum of concurrent meetings of Select Committees.

Motion on the parliamentary contributory pension fund.

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 Whitsun recess will be as follows:

TUESDAY 8 JUNE—Second Reading of the Pollution Prevention and Control Bill [Lords].

WEDNESDAY 9 JUNE—Until 2 o'clock, there will be debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Remaining stages of the Health Bill.

THURSDAY 10 JUNE—There will be a debate on defence in the world on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 11 JUNE—Private Members' Bills.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for next week's business and for an indication of the business for the week after the Whitsun recess. Will the right hon. Lady confirm that she has not lost sight of the promised debate on the House of Lords White Paper? That debate could have been held today, but for the Government's shameful decision to guillotine the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill.

Will the Government table any amendments to the Health Bill before we rise next week, so that Members and people outside the House have ample opportunity to respond to them? What has happened to the Food Standards Bill, which completed its passage through a Special Standing Committee some time ago and is now languishing on some parliamentary shelf?

The House is expecting several statements in the near future: on genetically modified foods, drugs and freedom of information. We shall also expect to be updated on Kosovo before we rise. Will the Leader of the House indicate when we might expect which announcements? In relation to genetically modified foods, the Government will want to address the widely held belief, confirmed in the leaked letter to Friends of the Earth, that the Government are obsessed with presentation at the expense of policy.

Last week, I asked the Leader of the House if she would 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?"—[Official Report, 13 May 1999; Vol. 331, c. 416.] That was in connection with the Government's U-turn on the Tote. The right hon. Lady rejected the charge of discourtesy, but was not insult added to injury by the behaviour of the Home Secretary yesterday, when he announced a new policy—the opposite of the previous one—on the "Today" programme? Has the right hon. Lady read what Madam Speaker said yesterday about the matter? She stated: The House knows that I deprecate statements that are made in the written press or in the media before they come to House. I do so very much again today."—[Official Report, 19 May 1999; Vol. 331, c. 1074–75.] Will the right hon. Lady now apologise to the House on behalf of the Government?

Mrs. Beckett

First, may I apologise to the House for something completely different? Two pages of the business statement were stuck together and I did not tell the House something that I am sure it wishes passionately to know.

On Wednesday 9 June, there will be a debate on the global navigation satellite system in European Standing Committee A. Details of the relevant documents will be given in the Official Report.

[Wednesday 9 June:

European Standing Committee A—Relevant European Union document: 6528/99, Global Navigation Satellite System; Relevant European Scrutiny Committee Report: HC 34-xvii;(1998–99).]

I apologise for denying the House that important information.

I have not lost sight of the Lords White Paper, and of course we will return to that matter. As for what the right hon. Gentleman called the shameful decision to guillotine the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill, I have looked for the most notable and sensible precedents to follow. In 1985–86, when the Government of whom the right hon. Gentleman was a member and a supporter were passing major social security legislation—which was more substantial even than the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

That was then, this is now.

Mrs. Beckett

Yes. The then Government guillotined the Bill in Committee and provided two days on the Floor of the House to debate the remaining stages and the Third Reading. That amounted to some 13 hours in which to discuss legislation that covered literally every kind of benefit from the cradle to the grave.

In this instance, the Government provided one day's debate on the Floor of the House and were not asked to allocate more time. There were 13 hours of debate on the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill on that one day, so we have already discussed the legislation for the same amount of time as was allocated in 1985–86. The Government have now provided another full day for debate. It is quite clear that we are providing more than adequate time for the debate should the Opposition wish to use it actually to debate the Bill—but that is a matter for them.

The right hon. Gentleman asked that amendments to the Health Bill be tabled next week. I cannot give him that assurance today because I genuinely do not know, however, I shall certainly draw his observations to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health. The Government are currently finalising the Food Standards Bill in light of public consultation and the report of discussions in the Food Standards Select Committee. We aim to introduce the legislation in this Session if time is available.

The right hon. Gentleman asked about a string of things—GM foods, drugs, freedom of information and Kosovo—and inquired as to when announcements might be made. We will endeavour to make as many announcements as we can before the recess. In response to the right hon. Gentleman's observations about presentation rather than policy and the comments by Opposition Front-Bench spokesmen on the radio this morning, I simply point out that the document which has been leaked—and about which there has been much excitement—states that it is important to write publications in clear language so that people can understand what is said. I do not think there is anything revolutionary about that—especially as the original memo, which is quoted in the Friends of the Earth press release, goes on to say: Ministers needed to guard against the charge that the Government was seeking to influence the findings of the paper. It must be quite obvious that the Government are trying only to make policy clear. There does not seem to be anything in that document other than sheer common sense.

As for the matter of statements, the Government endeavour at all times to ensure that important statements are made to the House. The right hon. Gentleman referred to statements being made outside the House, and I understand that hon. Members sometimes wish to explore subjects more fully. However, my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary did announce the policy change to which the right hon. Gentleman referred—which, I might add, was leaked extensively—in a written parliamentary question. So it was already announced to the House: there was simply no statement. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for North Warwickshire (Mr. O'Brien), apologised fully to the House yesterday. The right hon. Gentleman and all Opposition Members are perfectly well aware that the Home Secretary is assiduous in his courtesy to the House and in his attempts to ensure that the House is informed properly. As to the Opposition's pretence that the Government somehow withhold statements from the House—

Mr. Forth


Mrs. Beckett

I do wish that the hon. Member for West Derbyshire (Mr. McLoughlin) could possess his soul in some slight silence—Whips are normally silent. [Interruption.] I beg the hon. Gentleman's pardon: it was his right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) on that occasion.

In the 1992–93 Session, the then Government made some 96 statements about Government policy. In the equivalent period this Session, this Government have made 117.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

The Leader of the House will have heard about the bombing of a hospital in Belgrade last night, in which three people were killed and members of staff and patients were injured. Given the increasing number of civilians who are being killed, and the growing belief that NATO is running out of military targets and that there could be more such tragedies, will the Government initiate a debate before the recess on the effects of the bombing on the civilian population in Yugoslavia, both in Serbia and in Kosovo?

Mrs. Beckett

Everyone in the House regrets and deeply deplores the fact that there have been civilian casualties. My hon. Friend refers to the belief that NATO is running out of military targets. I understand—I believe that this is not contested—that it is clear that the target was a military barracks not far from the hospital, and possibly one of the bombs aimed at those barracks went astray. As to the effects of that, at the moment we have only limited information because the Serbian Government are not allowing people into the area. Clearly, we shall make every attempt to find out as much information as possible.

I cannot offer my hon. Friend a special debate on that particular aspect of the matter, but I assure her that the Government will continue to make statements and find time for debates on all the issues surrounding that action.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Leader of the House recognise that there is widespread and genuine confusion about the Government's position on genetically modified food and crops? Every day, we seem to receive conflicting reports. Will she arrange for a full statement and a full debate so that we can find out precisely what action the Government intend to take on those extremely important issues? Those are of concern not only to farmers and consumers, but to hon. Members on both sides of the House. Will the right hon. Lady ask the Prime Minister to reconsider the proposition put before him by my party that this is a classic case that the royal commission on environmental pollution, which has already done useful work on the subject, could be asked to revisit?

We understand why the Government did not make the statement that was expected today on the draft Bill on freedom of information. We have all been waiting so long for that statement that two or three days' delay is not a disaster. However, will the right hon. Lady now guarantee that there will be a statement when the draft Bill is published, which we anticipate will be next week, and that there will be a recognition of the concern that the original intentions set out by the Home Secretary appear to have been diluted?

Will the right hon. Lady agree also that the situation in Scotland—and, for all I know, in Wales—means that it is extremely important for us to make progress on that matter in this House? My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), the new Minister for Justice in Scotland, may be able to make more progress on it than is being made in this Parliament.

Will the right hon. Lady give an undertaking that open government and freedom of information in relation to the activities of the European institutions will also be addressed, albeit separately?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman asked about the conflicting reports and confusion about GM foods and crops. I agree that there is more confusion than there should be, but that is because people seem to want to sow confusion. For example, I heard such reports from people in the news media and, I am sorry to say, normally respected organisations that are campaigning on this matter.

The Government chief scientist was extensively quoted this morning, and he has made it plain that he was misquoted and misreported. I have his full letter before me in which he refers to what he believes is the only scientifically defensible position and says: I do not see a problem"— with the Government's stance. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the letter has been reported in a way that seeks to imply, and indeed asserts, that the Government chief scientist is in dispute with the Government's position.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

He is.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman may say that, but he is talking through the back of his neck. He should read the letter, the first line of which says: I do not see a problem here".

Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire)

I have the letter.

Mrs. Beckett

Well, if the hon. Gentleman has the letter, I suggest that he reads it and digests its contents. I have read it all, and it clearly says that there is no dispute about the science and with the Government's position.

The hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) asked about referring the matter to the royal commission, but of course the Science and Technology Select Committee has reported on the matter this week, and we are studying all the reports and considering the recommendations. However, I believe that the last thing that any of us wants to do is to kick into the long grass a sensible debate on the science of this matter, which is more than necessary and becomes more necessary with every day that misleading statements are made by the various campaigners on the issue.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to guarantee a statement on the freedom of information Bill, and I do so. I can also tell him that I know that my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary intends, as always, to explain with absolute clarity the position that the Government are taking and why he has reached his decisions.

The hon. Gentleman asked me to take account of the issue of the principles of open government with regard to EU policy and so on. To the extent that that is within this Government's control, we do so.

Mr. Jim Marshall (Leicester, South)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of increasing speculation in the United Kingdom and in other countries in Europe about the future of the Western European Union, especially the rumour that it might be integrated into the European Union? Does she accept that that issue should be debated in the House? She may argue that there are two opportunities in the next two parliamentary weeks to do so, but I urge her to hold a special debate so that we may debate that specific issue and the wider issue of European security.

Mrs. Beckett

I have a faint recollection of having heard rumours to that effect from time to time over the years, which have always turned out to be unfounded press speculation. I fear that I cannot offer my hon. Friend a special debate on the matter, although I understand its importance. However, I draw to his attention the fact that there is to be a debate on the European Union next Tuesday. It will focus on the pre-Cologne Council, but there is no reason why the matters raised by my hon. Friend may not be relevant—subject to Madam Speaker's opinion. In addition, I have just announced that there is to be a debate on defence in the world just after the recess, so that might provide another opportunity to my hon. Friend.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

As we enter the final straight towards the millennium, we realise that some people are apparently less well prepared than they should be in terms of the millennium bug. When that is pointed out, however, they say that that criticism is based on out-of-date information. Would the Leader of the House therefore contemplate accelerating the frequency of the admirable reports that she gives to the House, so that unnecessary apprehensions are not created?

Mrs. Beckett

I am most grateful to the right hon. Gentleman. I have every intention of doing so. The next statement is due in the relatively near future, and I intend thereafter to make monthly updating statements to the House.

Dr. Tony Wright (Cannock Chase)

My right hon. Friend will know that, over the years, hon. Members from both sides of the House have asked whether, when statements are made, we might have the text a little earlier in the day—perhaps by noon on the day that the statement is to be made—so that questions can be more focused and more informed. Would not the statement on freedom of information be exactly the right occasion on which to institute such a new procedure?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point, but I have slight reservations, although obviously it is a matter that could be considered. If I may say so without disrespect to any hon. Member on either side of the House, I would like to be absolutely and immediately confident that producing a copy of a statement at an earlier time would not mean that its precise details appeared in the news media before it was made in the House. I consider that it would be difficult to have such absolute confidence and certainty about that, but I will bear in mind that suggestion.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for an early debate on national health service trust management? I do not know whether she is aware that three non-executive directors of the Guild health care trust in Preston exposed mismanagement of that trust by the chief executive, which was brought to light in an independent report entitled, "The Care and Treatment of Daniel Holden." The chief executive was suspended by the trust board. There was a further investigation, by an independent panel, which endorsed that action and confirmed that the trust had been mismanaged. The trust was told, via the regional office, by the Secretary of State for Health, that the three non-executive directors should resign, and that, if they did not, they would be sacked to give the trust a fresh start.

Madam Speaker

A question, please.

Mr. Evans

Yes, Madam Speaker. Yesterday, the three non-executive directors were sacked. My great fear—I wonder whether the Leader of the House agrees—is that the morale of non-executive directors throughout the country will be affected by that decision.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxiety about the morale of non-executive directors but, to be honest, I do not see why that should be affected. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State made it plain at a much earlier stage that he felt that, sadly, it was not in the interests of the trust or of the health service as a whole for the members of the previous team to stay in post. He invited them to resign, and they were not willing to do so. These are clearly special circumstances and we must all hope that they are unique.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

In answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mrs. Mahon), the Leader of the House said that not very much is known about the tragic hospital bombing in Belgrade. If there is such a lack of information, should not bombing stop, or should not there at least be a pause? In particular, could not a statement be made on Monday, when a little more will be known about the facts?

Mrs. Beckett

The House understands my hon. Friend's strong views on this matter and I accept that he is saying that, on those grounds and on this occasion, there should be a pause in the bombing. I simply say to him, however, that there are different views on it, which are held by people in all good conscience, and draw to his attention what I understand to be the recent remarks of the Catholic Archbishop of Belgrade, who said that any pause in NATO action would be taken by President Milosevic as a sign of weakness.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

A moment ago, the Leader of the House was dismissive of the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) for a special debate on what has been happening at the Guild health care trust in Preston. In the light of her specific comments on the unique nature of this matter, may I press her to arrange for either an oral or a written statement, before the House rises for the Whitsun recess, to deal with those factors?

The sacked non-executive directors, who were acting in their capacity as whistleblowers on mismanagement, feel that their circumstances draw attention to the role of non-executive directors who raise certain issues and find themselves in the firing line of the Secretary of State. We need a statement urgently to clarify that matter.

Mrs. Beckett

May I remind the right hon. Gentleman that, no doubt inadvertently, the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) did not ask for a debate on that specific matter? He did not get round to that. I am afraid that I cannot find time for an extra and specific debate, but I can of course draw to his attention the fact that there is a pre-recess debate on Wednesday, in which any matter can be raised.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

In view of the publication earlier this week of the long-awaited and excellent White Paper on sustainable development—which has profound implications for Government policy on both social exclusion and environmental protection—can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on this issue in the near future, particularly as no questions have been asked in the House, no Government statements have been made on it and there has been very little interest in the media?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right to say that the White Paper will have profound implications, and it also merits most careful and thorough consideration and debate. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in the near future, although, again, he may be able to raise the matter in the pre-recess debate and I am sure that the House will return to it.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Given that, for better or for worse, the penalty of capital punishment for murder was abandoned many years ago, will the Leader of the House find time for a statement, either by the Home Secretary or by one of the Law Officers, on why those paratroopers who are, rightly or wrongly, accused of murder on Bloody Sunday will be required to sign their own death warrants in the forthcoming inquiry by revealing their full identities to the public at large and to the terrorists in particular?

Mrs. Beckett

That point could have been raised during questions to the Attorney-General, which have just taken place. I am always hesitant about dealing with matters that might in any way be sub judice, but I will draw the hon. Gentleman's observations to the attention of the relevant Minister.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Is my right hon. Friend aware of reports that three British National party candidates in the forthcoming European elections have submitted nomination papers bearing false addresses in order to qualify for a party political broadcast and an election freepost to 20 million households at public expense? Does she not agree that there is an urgent need for the House to review election law, to prevent our democratic processes from being subverted by racist and fascist organisations seeking a platform for their vile and odious views?

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right—and I am pleased to note that the whole House agrees with him.

I am aware of the reports to which my hon. Friend refers, and I have little doubt that they are being studied with great attention, even as we speak. As my hon. Friend will know, the Home Office is in any case conducting an election review, and this is exactly the kind of matter that it will be studying. As my hon. Friend says, we need to ensure that it cannot happen again.

Mr. Michael Fallon (Sevenoaks)

May we have an early debate on the rising cost of special advisers? The cost is now some £3.9 million a year, double the amount during the last year of Conservative government. May we also discuss the new practice of political advisers going on foreign jaunts with their Ministers? We are talking about 170 trips at public expense. How would Ministers defend this new kind of political tourism?

Mrs. Beckett

I am sure that we are likely to discuss that. I can even suggest a good slot: it can be discussed when we debate the financing of the Opposition parties.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Will the Leader of the House examine the order of questions to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland next Wednesday? Will she confirm my estimate that there will be no opportunity for the Secretary of State to make a statement about the conduct of Lord Saville's inquiry—indeed, the shameful conduct of that inquiry? Will she arrange for the Secretary of State to make a statement, hopefully announcing the winding up of the inquiry, given that Lord Saville has said that there will now be a lack of candour, and that the inquiry cannot possibly add anything to Lord Widgery's original inquiry?

Mrs. Beckett

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is well aware, what comes out of the questions hat is a mixture of chance and what hon. Members have tabled. However, I have already undertaken to draw the observations of his hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis) to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and I will do the same with his observations.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

May we, as a matter of urgency, have a debate on early-day motion 669?

[That this House deplores the fact that the Right honourable Member for Cardiff South and Penarth is being allowed to hold simultaneously the posts of Secretary of State for Wales and First Minister for Wales; believes that the existence of such a dual mandate creates an unacceptable conflict of interests; and deplores the fact that the total salary payable to the Right honourable Member for Cardiff South and Penarth as an honourable Member, Member of the National Assembly for Wales, Secretary of State for Wales and First Minister for Wales at £187,122 is higher than that paid to the Prime Minister and is amongst the highest remuneration of a public servant in the United Kingdom despite the fact that there is nothing the Right honourable Member can do as First Minister for Wales that he cannot do as Secretary of State for Wales.]

The Leader of the House will be aware of—and may well have participated in, over the years—the ritual condemnations by Labour Members of "fat cats" and Members of Parliament who hold several jobs. The right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) is a Member of the Welsh Assembly, Secretary of State for Wales and First Minister for Wales. That is four jobs, by my reckoning. Will the right hon. Lady give us an opportunity to discuss how on earth any individual, no matter how worthy, can hold four important jobs and justify a salary of £187,000 a year?

Mrs. Beckett

As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, the Secretary of State for Wales, my right hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael), has already made it plain that he has no intention of drawing more than his present salary.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

Is the right hon. Lady aware of the difficulties in which the Paymaster General found herself during this morning's sitting of the Finance Bill Standing Committee, in regard to changes to widows bereavement allowances? In the light of the confusion that the Paymaster General allowed to be created, is this not an opportune time for the Chancellor to make a statement clarifying the position? Undoubtedly, in a forthcoming year, many tens of thousands of widows will suffer because of the Government's changes to the Welfare Reform and Pensions Bill.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I am not aware of what happened in Committee this morning and, I say with respect to the hon. Gentleman, have some doubt about taking at face value Conservative Members' observation that there was confusion. I am certain that there will not be confusion about Government policy. I am also clear that the Government's changes are, for the first time, beginning to ensure that our reformed welfare system resembles the work and family patterns of today, as opposed to those of 50 years ago.

With regard to the overall approach and treatment of widows, I am mindful, for example, that the bereavement allowance, which was introduced by the Conservative party in 1986 to replace an allowance that was paid over six months, was introduced at a lower rate. It cut the funding that was made available to widows; it was introduced at a level of £1,000. During the rest of the 13 years that the Conservative party was in power, it never increased it by so much as a ha'penny, whereas we are about to double it, so we do not need to listen to strictures from Conservative Members about penalties on widows.

Mr. Robert Syms (Poole)

Will the Leader of the House put some pressure on the new Secretary of State for Scotland to come to the House to answer questions on the "Partnership for Scotland" document which has been agreed between the Labour party and the Liberal Democrats as a basis for running the Scottish Parliament? I have been looking through it and I am sure that it has major financial implications for the United Kingdom taxpayer. I am very anxious that we should protect the UK taxpayer and, indeed, my English constituents from paying additional costs north of the border following that agreement with the Liberal Democrats.

Mrs. Beckett

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman has noticed that it is Scottish questions on Tuesday and he will be able to ask the Secretary of State himself.

Mr. Peter Atkinson (Hexham)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for the Chancellor of Duchy of Lancaster or, indeed, the Prime Minister to come to the House to explain why No. 10 Downing street leaked the announcement of the appointment of the poet laureate, thus ruining what was going to be an important occasion next week, and at the same time gratuitously insulting the Queen?

Mrs. Beckett

It is my understanding that that is not what happened at all. As I understand it, the announcement was made through No. 10 that the Queen had approved the appointment of the poet laureate. That is the norm and is the way in which all such previous announcements have been made.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Further to the question from my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and the reply by the Leader of the House, will she confirm that, if what she says is right—namely, that the right hon. Member for Cardiff, South and Penarth (Mr. Michael) intends to take only the salary that is currently received by his Cabinet colleagues—there is an excess of £97,122 a year? Will she confirm that that money will in no circumstances be taken? Furthermore, does she not agree that, if we have a debate or statement on the subject, it will afford to the right hon. Gentleman the opportunity to confirm that, far from wasting the money by directing it back to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to misuse, he will instead donate it to worthy charities?

Mrs. Beckett

That is an ingenious suggestion. I am sure that, somewhere in his comments, the hon. Gentleman meant to welcome the restraint that has been shown by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales—and, indeed, all those in the Cabinet—in taking substantially less than the pay to which they are entitled, unlike, I fear, the Leader of the Opposition. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that, when my right hon. Friend says that he will not take any more than the salary that other members of the Cabinet are drawing, that is precisely what he means. As to the suggestion that my right hon. Friend should draw the rest of it and give it to charity, I just wish that I thought that Conservative Members would take that at face value if he did.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield)

May we have an early opportunity to debate Home Office proposals to restrict trial by jury? Will the right hon. Lady arrange for the Home Secretary to come to the House to give a statement, especially in light of the fact that, as late as February 1997, he was saying that such proposals were not only wholly wrong, but short-sighted and likely to prove ineffective?

Mrs. Beckett

We have already done that; there was an answer to a private notice question yesterday. My right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has made his position plain. He has said openly and honestly that that was the view that he expressed in 1997, that he has given the matter further consideration and that he has changed his mind. He has dealt with one of the main anxieties at that time—that there was no appeal against a decision about the form of trial—so the matter is plain. While no doubt the matter can be raised from time to time during Home Office affairs, there is no reason for extra time on it now.

Mr. Norman Baker (Lewes)

I should like to know when we are to have the statement on GM crops and GM food. I suggest that it should be sooner rather than later given that the Government's policy is unravelling at a rate of knots. Will that statement deal with the biotechnology presentation group—the spin unit—which no one had heard about until yesterday? Will the right hon. Lady give an undertaking that the terms of reference, dates of meetings and minutes of that spin unit will be published for all to see? Will she give a categoric assurance that, contrary to the implication in that leaked letter, there will be no attempt by Ministers to alter in any way, shape or form the recommendations from the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser?

Mrs. Beckett

First, there is no such thing as a spin unit. Secondly, the hon. Gentleman asked me to insist that there will be no attempt to interfere. If the hon. Gentleman read the leaked document, he would see that it says plainly that there is no attempt by Ministers to interfere or even to appear to interfere. All that is intended is that there should be as clear a presentation of policy as possible. Clearly, that is much needed so that hon. Members such as the hon. Gentleman do not continue to insist that our policy is unravelling in the face of a letter which says quite clearly that the policy is correct.

Mr. Paice

Will the right hon. Lady reconsider this business of genetically modified crops and have a full day's debate, not just a statement, whenever that may be? The responsible Minister could then account for why the document to which we have just referred says that the revised draft should be cleared by a future meeting of the presentation group. That refers to the recommendations of the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser. If that draft has to be cleared, how can the right hon. Lady guarantee that there will be no power to interfere with it? The relevant Minister would also be able to deal with the final point in Sir Robert May's letter, to which we have also referred and from which the right hon. Lady quoted earlier. Having just said that he does not see how Ministers could contemplate giving permission for commercial release of GM crops until January 2003 at the earliest, Sir Robert May went on to say: Obviously I could have written a shorter letter by just saying that I agreed with this sentence, right from the start!! If that is the case, will the right hon. Lady point out when and where any Government Minister has said that?

Mrs. Beckett

The Minister for the Environment has said precisely that.

Mr. Paice

He has not.

Mrs. Beckett

He has said that. I am sorry, but if the hon. Gentleman did not hear him, that is his problem. I shall come back to whether he has put a date on it. On the issue of why the matter should be cleared at a future meeting by people such as the chief medical officer and the chief scientific adviser, it is precisely in order to ensure that what is said is accurate, is in no way misleading and is scientifically sound. I do not believe that Ministers in the previous Government did not have proper and sensible arrangements for ensuring that what was said was agreed and sound. If they did not, it certainly accounts for the perceived incompetence that they displayed for so long.

I have read the last paragraph of the letter—I have read the whole letter. In the last paragraph, the chief scientific adviser says that he could have agreed with that sentence about GM crops "covered by this research." The reason for the previous page to that letter is that he points out that there are more GM crops to be considered than just those covered by the research. He says that there is no point in having a simple date or a simple moratorium—such as that being called for by some campaigners—because some GM foods might require longer periods of experimental evidence and others might require shorter periods. The request is irrelevant and a waste of time. He does not use those words, but he makes it clear that there is no scientific justification for saying, "Let us have it on that date." I cannot imagine how anyone can read his letter and read into it anything other than that.

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham)

Last week, a written answer gave a brief account of the outcome of the ministerial meeting of the European Space Agency. As the Leader of the House will know, that was the first such ministerial meeting since 1995. I hope that she will find time for a debate on space policy, which is so important for British industries. We need to know the Government's thinking and plans on space policy, but have not had an opportunity to debate the matter since they took office.

Mrs. Beckett

I do not remember precisely everything that we debated in our first year in office, but think that the hon. Lady may well be right to say that there has not been a major debate on space policy for quite some time. I understand the interest in the matter. She might try to work it into the debate on the global navigation satellite system—in European Standing Committee A, should she care to attend. Nevertheless, despite understanding the issues' importance, I cannot undertake to find time in the near future to debate them in the House.

Mr. Bercow

Sort it!

Madam Speaker

Mr. Bercow, I want no sedentary comments.

Mr. Oliver Letwin (West Dorset)

In the light of the Prime Minister's repeated failure to give clear answers on the Government's willingness, or otherwise, to hold a referendum before they have established clear rules for referendums, will the Leader of the House make time for either a statement or, preferably, a debate on the question whether the Government will guarantee not to hold any referendum until they have implemented the draft legislation that they are promising to bring before the House?

Mrs. Beckett

I am not aware of any confusion on the matter; the Government have always made the position clear. We established the Neill committee, and we take its recommendations, which we are studying, very seriously. In due course, we shall come forward with proposals and—undoubtedly, if it is required—with legislative change.

Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

The right hon. Lady declined to give the apology for which my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) asked in respect of yesterday's rather shocking episode about the statement on jury trial. She said that we had an apology yesterday. May I respectfully point out that what appears in column 1066 of Hansard is certainly not an apology to the House? Will she make such an apology? It really is deeply regrettable that such an announcement was slipped out in the way that it was. Will she also have a word with the Prime Minister and tell him that what the Government need is not an enforcer but a plumber?

Mrs. Beckett

I have never come across a Government who did not need plumbers. As for the apology, I simply said that it was my understanding that, yesterday, the House received a very full apology from my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary. Again, I remind the right hon. Gentleman and the House that the matter was dealt with and a statement was made to the House in a written parliamentary answer. Of course, if there are those who feel that there was insufficient opportunity to debate the issue, that is always a matter of concern. However, yesterday, Madam Speaker did the House the courtesy of finding time to raise it by granting the private notice question.