HC Deb 04 November 1999 vol 337 cc477-90 12.30 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

Will the Leader of the House please 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 8 NOVEMBER—Conclusion of consideration of Lords amendments to the Greater London Authority Bill.

Supplemental allocation of time motion followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Food Standards Bill.

TUESDAY 9 NOVEMBER—Supplemental allocation of time motion followed by consideration of Lords amendments to the Immigration and Asylum Bill.

WEDNESDAY 10 NOVEMBER—Until 2 o'clock, there will be the usual debates on the motion for the Adjournment of the House.

Consideration of Lords amendments to the House of Lords Bill.

THURSDAY 11 NOVEMBER—The House will be prorogued when Royal Assent to all Acts has been signified.

The House may also be asked to consider any Lords amendments that may be received.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for next week's business. Will the right hon. Lady tell us whether there will be oral questions on Thursday, the planned date of prorogation?

Clearly, the Government have a lot of business to complete in the few days that remain of this Session. On Monday and Tuesday of this week, the House finished its business early. We are now confronted with significant congestion, with guillotine after guillotine on important Bills and hundreds of amendments to the badly drafted Greater London Authority Bill. Would it not have been common sense to take the House of Lords Bill on Monday and Tuesday of this week to minimise the rush and chaos next week?

What statements are planned by the right hon. Lady's colleagues? We know that the Chancellor will be making a statement on Tuesday when, hopefully, he will respond to the case made by the road transport industry and get off the fuel escalator. When will we have a proper debate on that statement and on today's damaging Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development report, which shows that taxes are rising faster here than anywhere else in Europe?

Will the Home Secretary be making a statement on fox hunting to clarify the confusion there? Will the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food be bringing us up to date with progress in lifting the ban on British beef?

We will have completed this Session without the usual defence debate, without a debate on the royal commission on long-term care, without the usual small business debate and with the Government in growing disarray on tax, welfare, beef and hunting, and with their programme in this House in a shambles. In Parliament, this has been not a year of delivery but a year of disaster.

Mrs. Beckett

Whether there will be oral questions on Thursday will depend on the progress of business. It is a matter that can be discussed through the usual channels.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the House rising early and the handling of the Greater London Authority Bill. I accept that there is a substantial number of Government amendments to the Bill, but, as he is well aware, many are in response to concerns that were properly aired and considered in this place, which I am afraid is in no way unprecedented. The right hon. Gentleman also asked about statements planned. It was not clear to me whether he was pressing for fewer statements so that there would be more time to consider amendments, or for extra statements.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)


Mrs. Beckett

That is typical. In other words, whatever one does not get, one will complain about.

As to what is planned, the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) is correct to say that the Chancellor is to make the pre-Budget statement on 9 November, as has already been announced to the House. We will endeavour to keep to a minimum the number of other statements because we believe that that will be helpful to the management of the House and to Members' expectations. There will be a debate on the issues raised by the pre-Budget statement in the debates to follow the Queen's Speech, but the right hon. Gentleman knows that it would be unusual to have a debate immediately after it.

It is not accurate to say, as the Conservative party and the right hon. Gentleman have said, that the OECD report shows that taxes in the United Kingdom are now rising faster than elsewhere in Europe. From memory, I think that nine countries have a higher tax burden than ours. On anyone's measurement, the tax ratio in this country is lower than the Conservatives predicted in their pre-election projections for the handing of our financial affairs. The only way in which the Conservative party can even begin to support the nonsense that its members speak about tax is to include the windfall tax, which funds the new deal, and which is consequently extremely popular.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

It is still a tax.

Mrs. Beckett

Yes, it is, but most people would not feel it valid to include it in the figures in the way that the Conservatives choose to do.

The right hon. Gentleman asked whether the Home Secretary would make a statement about how fox hunting will be handled, and my right hon. Friend will make such an announcement when he is ready to do so. The right hon. Gentleman also mentioned my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food; he will know that discussions continue—

Mr. Forth

It's a shambles.

Mrs. Beckett

The shambles happened when the Conservative party presided over the BSE crisis. Unlike Conservative Members, we have resolved the problem rather than boasting about resolving it while utterly failing to do so. My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food has consistently kept the House informed and I am sure that all hon. Members will recognise how meticulously he has done so.

The right hon. Gentleman was right to say that we have not yet debated the Defence White Paper. As has been explained, that is a consequence of the changes required following events in Kosovo. I have told the right hon. Gentleman that I expect an announcement. The Department of Health has said that it hopes to say something about long-term care before Christmas, and I will be happy to schedule a debate on that matter when I can do so.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the lack of the usual small business debate. In fact, that debate was an innovation introduced by the Government.

I completely dismiss the right hon. Gentleman's general comments. This has not been an easy Session; it was never going to be so, given our determination to finish business that has been outstanding for 88 years, namely reform of the House of Lords. We shall complete that business.

Mr. Ronnie Campbell (Blyth Valley)

Will the Leader of the House initiate a debate, perhaps in the next Session, on the economic situation in the north-east of England? Only this week, 400 jobs have been lost at the last mine to close—Ellington colliery. In the new year, a power station will close with the loss of 300 jobs, and 100 jobs are going at Blyth harbour. Down the road, at Spennymoor, 100 jobs are being lost in the tobacco industry. The situation in the north-east is serious. We seem to be haemorrhaging jobs, but nothing is being done.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. News of job losses is always unpleasant, no matter in what industry they occur, and it is particularly difficult when several announcements come together. My hon. Friend will know that the Government try to assist in areas where that happens. My hon. Friend the Member for Barnsley, West and Penistone (Mr. Clapham) has secured a debate on the coal industry next Wednesday morning. The Government's action on the economy is designed to achieve steady and sustainable growth so that we can deal with issues, such as that which my hon. Friend raises, as they arise. In the debates on the Queen's Speech, we will have an opportunity to focus on a range of issues, and I am sure that my hon. Friend will take the opportunity to do so.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

Does the Leader of the House recall that the Labour party, in its manifesto, said—on the basis of discussions with the Liberal Democrats—that it was committed to reforming the business of the House in order to avoid the sort of nonsense that we face over the next seven days? Does she agree that the lack of any attention to real priority in the organisation of business this week, and the inadequate time that has therefore been allowed for important legislation—not least on matters of concern raised by those on her Back Benches—gives the lie to the idea that any modernisation of the business of the House has truly taken effect? She said that this was an exceptional Session. Can she guarantee that this time next year, we will not have the ludicrous brinkmanship from which we are suffering now?

Mrs. Beckett

I presume that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the behaviour of the House of Lords. He talks about a lack of attention being given to priority, but the Government have taken great care in handling priority issues. He suggests that there has been insufficient time, but the record of our debates shows that all the issues that we have still to resolve have received many hours of scrutiny both here and in the House of Lords. I fear that such a backlog or traffic jam at the end of a Session is a feature of our present parliamentary system. That was particularly likely to happen this year, largely because of the time that the Lords spent on the House of Lords Bill. I do not attack that, because it is perfectly acceptable, sensible and reasonable for the House of Lords to spend considerable time discussing its future. The time spent on that has taken time from what would usually have been available for the Government's legislative programme. If one includes the 15 hours in the Privileges Committee, 165 hours were spent on debating Lords reform, of which 111 hours were on the Bill itself. That would have made a serious hole in the time available for discussing any Government's programme, and it has had a knock-on effect. The hon. Gentleman talked about the staging of business this week, but we can only deal with such matters when they come back from the Lords.

Mr. Nigel Griffiths (Edinburgh, South)

Has the Leader of the House studied the report from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Kosovo, which shows that people lack food? Given next week's busy timetable, will she ensure that, if there is no opportunity to discuss it in the House, the appropriate Department will take the lead in ensuring that the cut in food aid, which will cause starvation in Kosovo, is reversed before the aid donors meeting on 17 November?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend has taken a great interest in affairs in Kosovo, has studied the matter closely and undertaken a visit. I am grateful to him for telling me that he might raise the issue. I understand that the Department for International Development is considering the issues in Pristina that he raises, is endeavouring to assess the consequences of the problems that he has identified and will write to him shortly.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Given that the Greater London Authority Bill came out of Committee at the end of March but that the Government did not choose to bring it back for Report and Third Reading until May, despite having had 13 years to consider the legislation, is it fair that Londoners should be asked to take this mountain of amendments in less than two days at the end of the Session?

Mrs. Beckett

The right hon. Gentleman is right to say that the Bill came out of Committee in March, but he knows that one outcome of the Committee was that the Government undertook to take on board a great many issues raised there. He also knows that it is a substantial Bill that changes the structure not only of London government but of London transport and other matters. If we compare the time taken on the Bill with that taken on legislation less than a third of its size in, for example, the early 1990s, it is clear that reasonable time has been allotted. No one is happy about so many amendments coming so late, but he is well aware that many are technical. With regard to the time that we have had to consider the matter, he knows better than most that no one spends all their time thinking about a legislative programme the details of which we may be able to consider only two or three years into a Parliament. However, the principles underlying the Bill have been well considered and are being effected.

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

Does the Leader of the House agree that the World Trade Organisation conference in Seattle this month is of enormous importance to the economy and environment of the United Kingdom and globally? Does she further agree that there is increasing public concern about the powers and responsibilities of the WTO and its influences on our everyday life, and that there is little debate and scrutiny of its activities in this House? Will she find time in the near future to debate the implications of the conference in Seattle? If that leads to a new millennium round of trade negotiations, there needs to be a permanent mechanism of scrutiny of the negotiations in the House.

Mrs. Beckett

I entirely share my hon. Friend's view that the trade negotiations in Seattle are extremely important and that the role of the WTO is of great importance and increasingly recognised as such. I agree that it is important to get the balance right, although I take the view that there is merit and benefit for all in an expansion of free trade. My hon. Friend is right to say that the issues are among the many important issues that we do not always find enough time to consider in the House. I remind him, as I reminded someone last week, that we shall be expanding the opportunities for debate with the Westminster Hall meetings in the forthcoming Session, and my hon. Friend may think it worth raising the work of the WTO there. However, I cannot share my hon. Friend's view that we can readily find time to introduce some permanent mechanism for scrutiny of what happens at the WTO over and above that available for scrutiny of Department of Trade and Industry responsibilities.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Will the right hon. Lady acknowledge that the speed at which taxes are rising is giving rise to great concern? Will she ensure that the Chancellor deals with that issue head on in his statement on Tuesday?

Mrs. Beckett

I do not share the hon. Gentleman's analysis, as he will know, but he can be pretty confident—

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

It is an independent report, not government spin doctoring.

Mrs. Beckett

No, the OECD analysis refers to some relatively out-of-date figures—[Interruption.] The hon. Gentleman says sotto voce that I have not read it, but he clearly has not read it or he would know that the OECD report itself recognises that it refers to figures that are out of date. I think I am right in saying that it uses calendar years rather than financial years, so there is a different basis of analysis, and the OECD makes an important caveat. I expect that Opposition Members do not even know that the OECD has said that the figures that it has produced should not be used to make incautious and invalid comparisons.

In answer to the hon. Member for New Forest, West (Mr. Swayne), I am confident that he can expect my right hon. Friend the Chancellor to deal with these issues in his pre-Budget report, if only because I anticipate that the hon. Gentleman will seek to raise them then.

Shona McIsaac (Cleethorpes)

Will my right hon. Friend use all her influence to arrange for a statement on the recent High Court decision to award compensation to Spanish trawler men? It is yet another example of how Tory hostility to Europe backfires on the British people, not least former trawler men in constituencies such as mine, and in Grimsby, Hull and Fleetwood, who are fighting their own campaign for compensation for the loss of their jobs. There is considerable passion about the issue in my area. Since the High Court decision, I have received some 200 letters about it, so I hope that my right hon. Friend can arrange for a statement.

Mrs. Beckett

I am not sure that I can undertake to find time for an early statement, but I understand the point that my hon. Friend makes and her strength of feeling and that of her constituents. However, she is uncharacteristically over-generous to the Conservative party. It was not only its hostility to the European Union but its incompetence as a Government that led to the decision to which my hon. Friend refers.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

Does not the right hon. Lady herself make the point that there is a strong case for a debate on tax, so that we can have a full debate on the whole matter rather than discussing the selective points that she makes? Is she suggesting that an organisation as reputable as the OECD is in the habit of issuing out-of-date reports, based on invalid statistics? Should we not hold a full debate to assess whether we have the fastest rising tax burden in Europe?

Mrs. Beckett

One reason why the OECD is reputable is because it is careful to publish accurate information. The OECD does not say what Conservative Members claim—they have clearly read their lines, but not the OECD report.

Mr. Mark Fisher (Stoke-on-Trent, Central)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate in Government time on the climate change levy before the Government conclude their consultations with industry on that matter, and announce the final shape of the levy? Such a debate would allow all parts of the House to contribute—or to make a final contribution—to the consultation process, and to discuss the persuasive argument that the levy should be flexible enough to distinguish between those sections of manufacturing industry that have been responsible and have reduced energy use, and those that have not.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend will have to forgive me, as I cannot immediately recall when the consultation period on the levy ends. However, I can certainly tell him that, as he is aware, in the coming days, there will be opportunities to raise a range of issues. I am sure that he will take the opportunity—as will others—to raise that matter and ensure that it is aired. Even if we are close to the end of the consultation period, he will know that all Governments sensibly take into account the comments and advice that they receive.

Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)

Will the Leader of the House arrange a debate, or for a statement to be made by the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, early next week, so that we can discuss the Minister's incompetence in giving way to the French, when we had the law and the science on our side? Why did he have to give further concessions to the French? Those concessions are now leading to problems with the negotiations with the Germans. Will he also tell us when he will lift the beef on the bone ban?

Mrs. Beckett

I am sorry that I cannot undertake to find time for my right hon. Friend to make a further statement on that issue during the next few days, although, of course, if he has a major announcement to make, no doubt he will do so. However, I fear that the hon. Gentleman is whistling in the wind; most people recognise the extreme competence—[Interruption.] I have read the comments of the National Farmers Union, and very forthright they are. For example, Ben Gill stated: I do not believe that the timetable we have been looking at for the lifting of the ban has been knocked off course. I am not unhappy with this outcome. The NFU complains that some Conservative Members are trying to use farmers' experience in order to make a party political point, and it attacks those Members for doing so.

I realise that such a debate will give the Government and my right hon. Friend a chance to remind the House of the incompetence of the Conservatives and the success that he has enjoyed, but he might become swollen-headed if we give him many more such opportunities.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the extra 1.1 million homes recommended for the south-east of England is not Government policy, but merely advice from a panel of inspectors? Will she also confirm that hon. Members will have ample opportunity in the House to raise the concerns of their constituents before the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions reaches his decision, and that they will not need to engage in the cheap, hypocritical point scoring that we heard from Conservative Members yesterday evening?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely correct. Most people who have carefully followed these issues are well aware that the report was not produced by the Government; it was a report to the Government, which the Government will consider and upon which they will pronounce. He is also right to point out that there will be many opportunities for the House to consider the issues raised in the report. It is most important that we do so sensibly—not based on the scare stories put about by the Conservatives.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Aldershot)

Given the damning indictment by the OECD report, drawing attention to the fact that, in the first full year of the Labour Government, we saw the biggest tax increase for 16 years, will the Leader of the House please arrange for the First Lord of the Treasury to explain to the House why, according to The Times, he told my right hon. Friend, the Leader of the Opposition, on 10 March, that We have not raised taxes, we have cut them."?

Mrs. Beckett

We have dealt with that issue several times. My right hon. Friend comes to the House every week, so the hon. Gentleman will no doubt endeavour to raise the matter on one of those occasions—unless, in the meantime, he reads the OECD report, in which case, he probably will not.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

May I press the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Bury, North (Mr. Chaytor) raised about the World Trade Organisation? In yesterday's Question Time, the WTO was discussed with the Secretary of State for International Development. We have had many oral and written questions and three early-day motions, but we have not had a debate on that important subject. Given that the WTO is due to meet in Seattle on 30 November and that there are massive problems with international trade and the third world, could we have a debate before 30 November?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. He might find an opportunity to raise those issues in and around the debates that take place in the new Session. I cannot undertake to provide time for a special debate, although I recognise the importance of his point, and will draw it to the attention of my Cabinet colleagues.

Mr. Bercow

May we have a full day's debate in Government time next week on the Prime Minister's astonishing determination to drag Britain into joining the euro, with a cost that he will not calculate, for a benefit that he cannot quantify, and at a risk to the self-government of the British people that he dare not admit? Does the right hon. Lady accept that the merit of having such a debate now is all the greater because a recent ICM poll, wisely commissioned by my hon. Friend the Member for New Forest, East (Dr. Lewis), showed that 64 per cent. of British people oppose entry to the euro? Should not the Prime Minister open a full day's debate in the House and explain his minority extremism, as opposed to the majority common sense of the British people?

Mrs. Beckett

I am tempted to say "no" and sit down, but that would be unfair on the hon. Gentleman, who regularly attends these enjoyable occasions. I shall therefore simply say that I see no call for a full day's debate, let alone in Government time, on the euro in the near future. The Government's approach is quite clear and has been for a long time: we shall act in the national interest. When we judge that it is in the national interest to enter the euro, we shall put the case to the British people and they will make the decision.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

Will my right hon. Friend make time for a debate on the way in which planning applications are considered? Those of my constituents who support the excellent work of the Shaftesbury campaign against McDonald's and who live close to the site where a new takeaway restaurant is planned for the west Harrow part of my constituency are understandably extremely concerned that, because the restaurant is being built on the site of a former public house, it does not require a high level of detailed planning consideration. Given the impact on my constituents and on the excellent Whitmore high school nearby, can I persuade my right hon. Friend to make time for such a debate?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand how great concern can be caused within a constituency when planning issues are being considered, particularly if people feel that the development will have a substantial impact on the quality of their lives. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate in the House on the matter, but I am sure that my hon. Friend will use his ingenuity to raise it. May I recommend to him the opportunities for debate that will arise in Westminster Hall?

Mr. Forth

The Leader of the House could not possibly—could she—be seeking to avoid a debate on the OECD report? Does she recall the tax bombshell, which turned out to have a much longer fuse than many of us imagined? Now that the facts are in the public domain, however, and an authoritative, impartial source has clearly established that tax levied by this Government has increased and is continuing to increase, surely it is in the Government's interest to set the matter right and to give the House an opportunity to consider it properly? The Government could then set out their version of events and my colleagues and I could explore the OECD's authoritative and impartial account of the steep and continuing rise in taxation on the people and businesses of this country.

Mrs. Beckett

No, I am not worried in the slightest about having such a debate. Indeed, many of my right hon. and hon. Friends would look forward to such an event with considerable relish. We all enjoy contrasting the Conservative party's record of economic management with that of the Government and the Chancellor. However, I fear that we must be denied that treat, at least in the near future, although there will no doubt be an economic debate in the aftermath of the Queen's Speech.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Is it not a matter of regret that the House has never debated the scandal of the mis-selling of endowment mortgages? Requests for such a debate were made 10 months ago at business questions and have been made repeatedly since, and the matter was raised in early-day motion 881.

[That this House is alarmed at the evidence published in Financial Adviser and The Sunday Times that reveals that more than two million people may have been mis-sold endowment mortgages; notes that leading independent financial advisers stress that endowment mortgages have been unsuitable for virtually everyone for the past 10 years; regrets that the Personal Investment Authority/Financial Services Authority have not already acted despite evidence of widespread mis-selling revealed by the recent mystery shopper exercises by the Consumers' Association and Suffolk Trading Standards; and calls on the Treasury and FSA to launch an immediate investigation into mis-selling and urges them to consider outlawing endowment mortgages, as the United States has done, and to further consider whether compensation should be paid to those who have suffered financial losses.]

Is it not a matter of regret that the House has never debated the scandal of the mis-selling of endowment mortgages? This month, a half a million victims of endowment mis-selling will be told that their premiums must be substantially increased. It is clear that 4 million endowment mortgages have been sold in the interests of the sellers not the purchasers, because they attract up to seven times more commission than repayment mortgages. Is it not right that we should consider this matter? It is commendable that the Government are drawing attention to this scandal, but at the moment they are only barking, and they should now show us that they are determined to bite.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend refers to an issue that has become more clear over the past year. He correctly said that this problem was flagged up much earlier, but the picture was not clear until more recently. There was a mortgage summit last Friday, and the Government are considering, in discussions with the industry, what action should be taken. I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the issue in the near future, but I shall draw his comments to the attention of my right hon. Friends.

Mr. Evans

Is not one of the reasons why we have one of the fastest-growing tax burdens wasteful Government expenditure? Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made on the future of the Government's annual report? There have been only two editions, and 100,000 copies of the most recent edition were printed but only 8,000 were sold. The Government bought 41,000 copies, and are now prepared to buy the remaining 51,000. That is the clearest example of vanity publishing. It is usually the author who picks up the tab, but, in this case, it is the taxpayer. Will she arrange for a statement to be made, so that this publication can cease to be published?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising the issue of wasteful Government expenditure, as it is a matter on which we certainly ought to have, and probably will have, debates in the future. The Conservative party has attacked as wasteful and extravagant the Government's expenditure on the health service, education, the national minimum wage and other matters of much greater interest to the British people than expenditure on the annual report. As for it being a classic example of vanity publishing, I cannot recall the exact figures, but I think that I am right in saying that between 10,000 and 20,000 copies were sold to the general public. If the hon. Gentleman wants an example of what he calls vanity publishing, and one that involved greater cost and less interest, I recommend to him the previous Government's White Paper on competitiveness, which cost about three times as much and sold far fewer copies.

Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle)

Next week is very congested, but is it possible to squeeze in a statement by the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry—I appreciate that we have just had Trade and Industry Questions—about the objective 2 structural funds and the map that was submitted by the British Government to the European Commission last month? It unfortunately contained an error in that two of the most deprived wards in my constituency were omitted because of a cock-up and an oversight by the regional development agency, which did not consult my authority before submitting the map to the Government office for the north-west. That has enormous ramifications for my area. The European Commission is due to make a pronouncement this month, so the matter is urgent. If we could have such a statement, that would greatly please me, and my hon. Friends who have experienced the same problem.

Mrs. Beckett

Despite my hon. Friend's blandishments, I fear that I cannot undertake to squeeze in such a statement next week. As he said, the report is before the Commission. He raises an important and serious point, and I undertake to draw it to the attention of the Secretary of State, who will no doubt be in touch with my hon. Friend about it.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Rural areas are suffering from the underfunding of public services. The fire service in Shropshire is underfunded by 46 per cent., and the local authority will therefore have to spend more than its standard spending assessment allows.

A recent report by independent experts, commissioned by the Home Office, recommended that sparsity should be taken into account in the distribution of police forces. We have the lowest ratio of policemen to population in western Europe, yet it is proposed that 36,000 new houses should be built in Shropshire. We want houses for the purposes of indigenous growth, but there must be a full debate on the impact of those building plans on publicly funded services that are already stretched to the limit.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman will know that the Government are indeed very concerned about the position in rural areas, and that they have taken steps to try to reduce some of the difficulties that became so severe under the Government whom he supported. He will know that we have introduced rate relief for village shops and post offices, invested substantial extra money—£170 million—in rural transport, given extra help to small rural schools, and increased spending on conservation and rural development. He will also know that the Government are committed to introducing a rural White Paper. We are not saying that all problems experienced in rural areas can be overcome overnight, but those developments show that the Government are aware of the difficulties, and are taking steps to redress them.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead)

Is the Leader of the House aware that, in October 1998, I asked whether we ought to have a debate on, in particular, the centrality of biotechnology to the Government's science policy—

Mr. Swayne

I remember!

Mr. McWalter

I thank the hon. Gentleman for that.

When I asked my question, I bore in mind the fact that real dangers would arise in regard to genetically modified crops and other such matters. I asked a similar question in June. In 1998, the Leader of the House said that such matters were of great importance. She also said that she could not promise me an early debate, and, in that respect, she has been as good as her word. Every hon. Member is now aware of the seriousness and importance of those matters. Will the Leader of the House, 13 months on, try to make room for a Government initiative?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for the spirit in which he raised this matter, and for his recognition of the accuracy of what I said to him. I fear that I still cannot undertake to find time for a debate, but I commend to him the sittings in Westminster Hall, and remind him that Cabinet Office questions will take place on Wednesday, when he may find an opportunity to raise the matter again.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

The Leader of the House may be aware that parents of vaccine-damaged children came to the House yesterday to make representations to Members about their financial plight. She may recall that, under the last Labour Administration, the Vaccine Damage Act 1979 was passed, providing for compensation for parents of children who had suffered 80 per cent. brain damage or more. I am sure that she will agree that a £40,000 one-off payment is hardly sufficient compensation for the lifelong injury that those children suffered. Can she assure me that, at some stage, the Government will find time to revisit that earlier legislation—passed, I think, with the agreement of all Members—and to provide an equitable arrangement for parents and the children whom they care for?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in the near future, but I will draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. I think the hon. Gentleman will find that debates about the handling of health care are due to take place in the coming week; he may have an opportunity to raise the matter then, or doing debates on the Queen's Speech.

Mr. Mike Gapes (Ilford, South)

May we have an early debate on the promotion of this country abroad, and, in particular, on the work of the British Council? In that context, could we find time to congratulate Mr. Stephen Shaw of the British Council on achieving such high international status that he is recognised more widely than the Leader of the Opposition? Could we perhaps arrange a job swap between Mr. Shaw and the Leader of the Opposition, which would enable the British Council to raise its profile in the House of Commons, and enable the Leader of the Opposition to raise his profile abroad?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. All Members from all sides of the House very much value the work of the British Council, and I heartily congratulate Mr. Stephen Shaw. I am not sure what message my hon. Friend's question holds for the future of the Leader of the Opposition—

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

He has to worry about a job swap with Michael Portillo.

Mrs. Beckett

I hear my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) talk about a job swap. Indeed, that may be in the Leader of the Opposition's future stars, but not in those of Mr. Shaw.

Mr. Quentin Davies (Grantham and Stamford)

Has the right hon. Lady read the OECD report on taxation, because her remarks about it did not give me the impression that she had? Will she give the House an honest answer? If we cannot have the debate on taxation that we so evidently need to clarify the position, can we have a debate on honesty in government so that we can probe the Prime Minister on what he meant when he said before the election We have no plans to increase taxes at all."?

Mrs. Beckett

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman was made perfectly well aware of the Government's plans when they made their announcements before the general election. We made it plain that we would not raise the rate of income tax and that we would not raise the higher rate of income tax. It is very dishonest of Conservative Members to pretend that we have increased them.

Mr Evans

What about honesty?

Mrs. Beckett

I am about to come to that. Like the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), I believe in honesty in politics and I am perfectly prepared to answer his question. I have read a very thorough and clearly more detailed summary of the report than that seen by Conservative Members.

Dr. George Turner (North-West Norfolk)

I was slightly surprised that my right hon. Friend's business statement did not refer to the ping-pong match which, I understand from the media, we are going to play with the other House next week. Have the Government any contingency plans to ensure that, if such a match takes place, the democratic will of this Chamber will win and that we shall not see demob unhappy hereditary peers trying to impose their will on the people of this nation?

Mrs. Beckett

Although we do not use media descriptions such as ping-pong match, the phrase in the business statement The House may also be asked to consider any Lords amendments which may be received covers such an eventuality.

I hope that all Members accept the supremacy of this elected House. The purpose of the House of Lords is to scrutinise, consider, advise and put a different point of view on some of the issues raised. That is right and proper. However, this House is elected and that is where final decisions should rest. As for contingency plans, I suppose that that is how one could describe our consideration of the House of Lords Bill on Wednesday.

Mr. Nick St. Aubyn (Guildford)

Is the Leader of the House aware that, according to Government figures in the Treasury Red Book, the share of national income that the Government take in tax has increased from 37 to 41 per cent? That is equivalent to an extra £36 billion a year. Will she arrange for the appropriate Minister to explain to the House why, in the last week alone, two constituents have written to me to say that they have life-threatening heart conditions, but, after months of waiting, they still cannot obtain a firm date for the operation that they need? Can we have a debate about that?

Mrs. Beckett

That is a classic example of the muddled thinking that seems to be so prevalent among Conservative Members. The hon. Gentleman lambasts the Government for, he says, raising too much money in taxation, while calling for more spending on the health service. It is time that the Conservative party sorted itself out and worked out which argument it is putting.

Miss Julie Kirkbride (Bromsgrove)

Not surprisingly, the right hon. Lady refused Conservative Members a debate on the Government's increase in taxation. Therefore, before the pre-Budget statement next week, will she make representations to the Chancellor of the Exchequer to come clean with the British people? Despite what she said in her answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), the Prime Minister promised that he would not increase taxes "at all". We see from the OECD report today that Britain now has the fastest rising taxes. As my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition said to the Prime Minister yesterday, this Government not only increase taxes by stealth, but they are stealthy when it comes to telling the truth.

Mrs. Beckett

First, I remind the hon. Lady that I did not refuse a debate, but refused to undertake to find time next week for such a debate. I also pointed out that there would be opportunities for such debate in the aftermath of the Queen's Speech, and, undoubtedly, also on other occasions. Secondly—on the nonsense of pretending that the Government somehow misled the British people—as I have already pointed out several times today, the only way in which Conservative Members will be able even to begin to justify their allegations—

Mr. Bercow

It is all on the record.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is quite right. It is all on the record—and the British people are familiar with that record. Contrary to the statements of Conservative Members, the British people know that, for example, the windfall tax—which Conservative Members use as the basis for justifying their figures on tax rises—was more than well publicised before the general election. The notion that the British people did not know that we would levy a windfall tax on utilities to fund the new deal is ridiculous. The tax was one of the reasons they voted for us.

Several hon. Members


Madam Speaker

Thank you. We will move on now.