HC Deb 25 November 1999 vol 339 cc755-68 12.31 pm
Sir Patrick Cormack (South Staffordshire)

Would the Leader of the House be kind enough 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 29 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Electronic Communications Bill.

TUESDAY 30 NOVEMBER—Second Reading of the Representation of the People Bill.

Motion on the Northern Ireland Appointed Day Order 1999.

WEDNESDAY 1 DECEMBER—Debate on the European Union on a motion for the Adjournment of the House in advance of the European Council meeting in Helsinki on 10 and 11 December.

THURSDAY 2 DECEMBER—Debate on the report of the royal commission on long-term care on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 3 DECEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

The provisional business for the following week will be as follows:

MONDAY 6 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Government Resources and Accounts Bill.

TUESDAY 7 DECEMBER—Second Reading of the Freedom of Information ll.

WEDNESDAY 8 DECEMBER—Opposition Day [1st Allotted Day].

There will be a debate on an Opposition motion, for which the subject is to be announced.

That will be followed by a motion relating to the Postal Privilege (Suspension) Order 1999.

THURSDAY 9 DECEMBER—Debate on World Trade Organisation millennium round on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 10 DECEMBER—The House will not be sitting.

I am able to inform the House of business to be taken in Westminster Hall from 30 November. On Tuesdays and Wednesdays when the House is sitting and until the end of the Session, there will be Adjournment debates, the topics of which will be determined by ballot.

Additionally, on Thursdays until Christmas, the following topics will be subject for debate—

THURSDAY 2 DECEMBER—Sea Fishing—Eighth report from the Agriculture Committee Session, 1998–1999 HC 141; and Seventh Special Report (Government reply).

THURSDAY 9 DECEMBER—Debate on the Modernising Government White Paper.

THURSDAY 16 DECEMBER—Debate on delivery of nursery pledges and child care provision.

The subjects for debate on Select Committee reports have been set down by direction of the Chairman of Ways and Means in consultation with the Chairman of the Liaison Committee.

Finally, the House will wish to know that, subject to the progress of business, we propose that the House should rise for the Christmas recess at the end of business on Tuesday 21 December and return on Monday 10 January 2000.

Sir Patrick Cormack

I thank the right hon. Lady for giving us the business for next week and the provisional business for the week after. I also thank her for telling us the immediate future plans for Westminster Hall. Finally, I thank her on behalf of the staff of the House for announcing the dates of the Christmas recess, although I must express some disappointment on behalf of the staff that the Friday of the preceding week has not been given as the date for the rise of the House.

Can the Government indicate to us their thinking when we debate the royal commission on long-term care next week? My right hon. Friend the Member for north-west Hampshire (Sir G. Young) and I have pressed for such a debate for some months. Following that delay, it would be useful to know the Government's response to that royal commission, as well as hearing the views of the House.

May I also welcome the debate on Thursday 9 December on the World Trade Organisation millennium round? As the right hon. Lady will know, we have much sympathy with the Jubilee 2000 campaign. Perhaps, again, we can have a definitive statement of the Government's position during that debate.

May I ask for an absolute assurance that the Standing Committee and remaining stages of the Representation of the People Bill will be taken on the Floor of the House? This is a constitutional Bill of far-reaching importance. When electoral reform measures were put before the House in 1984 and 1989, they were taken on the Floor of the House, as was a much less significant measure in 1983, for which there was also a joint Select Committee of both Houses. Therefore, we expect this Bill to be taken on the Floor of the House.

Will the right hon. Lady give us some sign of when we will have the autumn expenditure debate for which my right hon. Friend the Member for north-west Hampshire also asked last week? Will she also tell us when we will have the two-day defence debate, which the House has been denied for a long time and which we would expect?

Will the right hon. Lady also promise that on Monday the Prime Minister will give a statement to the House on the summit that is taking place in Downing street? Also, in view of the confusing and ambivalent reports in today's papers, will she give an absolutely clear undertaking on where the Government stand on the beef ban? Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman could also explain why he has not given Mr. Jospin some excellent British beef for lunch. As the right hon. Lady knows, many people find it utterly incomprehensible that we still have a ban on beef on the bone and. as Christmas is approaching and beef is a traditional Christmas dish, will she give an assurance that the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who is not a million miles away from her at this moment, will make it clear to the House beyond doubt that we can have beef on the bone for Christmas?

Finally, the right hon. Lady was good enough to tell us the dates for the Christmas recess and we appreciate that. As she will know, the Modernisation Committee, of which she is Chairman, called for a much more structured parliamentary year and talked about a constituency week in February. Will she promise to announce before Christmas the remaining dates of this parliamentary year?

Mrs. Beckett

I hope that I will not forget any of that. First, I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his welcome for the dates of the Christmas recess. To pick up on his final point, I fear, however, that we have done well to give both the dates of rising and of the return of the House and I am certainly not in a position to give any other dates at this point in the year. While it is highly desirable to have a more structured parliamentary year, and I would like to be able to give firmer dates for the year ahead, that depends—as it is bound to do—on the progress of business. The hon. Gentleman will know that, from time to time, business does not progress as smoothly as we would all wish. The recommendations of the Modernisation Committee, as far as I recall—although I was not then a member of it—were predicated on matters such as programme motions, which might be voluntarily agreed to enable more structured discussion. While we lack more structured discussion, we cannot have a more structured timetable.

The hon. Gentleman also asked about the debates on long-term care. If he casts his mind back, he will recall that the pressure for a debate on the royal commission report has always been so that the House could have a chance to express its view and people could air the ideas floated in that report. He is now asking me for a clear indication of Government policy. We undertook to structure a debate so that the House could have a chance to air the issues and give its views and that is the debate that is being provided.

The hon. Gentleman also asked whether we would use the WTO debate to give a commitment and undertaking about the progress sought by Jubilee 2000. He will know that that is not quite the same as the WTO discussions on a whole new trade round. Indeed, it is not possible to judge that at present, because the Seattle talks have not yet begun. However, I should be surprised if there is not sufficient material in those talks to take up the time for the debate, without being able to go into the issues on Jubilee 2000. The hon. Gentleman knows that the Government have been working on those issues, but I do not anticipate they will necessarily be covered during that debate.

The hon. Gentleman asked me for an absolute assurance that the whole Committee and Report stages of the Representation of the People Bill would be taken on the Floor of the House. All I can say is that I am prepared to consider that matter and to discuss it. I am a little sceptical about the readiness with which the Opposition identify what they think are constitutional issues—especially the notion that that entire Bill should be taken on the Floor of the House. I am prepared to discuss the matter, but I am certainly not prepared to give such a commitment at present.

The hon. Gentleman will be aware that we continue to discuss the handling and the timing of the public expenditure debates, and I assure him that we are looking anxiously for an outcome to those discussions.

The hon. Gentleman said that the House had been denied the debate on the defence report. That is a little unfair. We made it plain that the defence White Paper would need substantial rewriting and updating, following defence developments during the year—especially over the summer—but that we would present it to the House as soon as we could, and that we anticipated holding a debate on it as soon as possible, given that we should need to take into account the report of the Select Committee on Defence on the matter before we put it to the House.

The hon. Gentleman asked for a statement on the Anglo-French summit. As he will be aware, the precedent is that the Prime Minister comes to the House to make a statement after formal European summits. There is no precedent for a demand for a statement after every informal summit—indeed, that would hardly be practical.

The hon. Gentleman asked me a string of questions about beef. I say simply that, of course, those are issues of importance and concern—the whole House realises that. However, in calling for them to be aired so thoroughly immediately after Agriculture questions, perhaps his timing was a little off.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

Will my right hon. Friend give serious consideration to a debate on early-day motion 1?

[That this House welcomes the Government's decision to raise income support for pensioners annually in line with average earnings, but regrets the widening gap between the basic pension and income support; notes the Treasury's estimate that by April 2002 the National Insurance Fund's balance will be £8.43 billion above the minimum recommended by the Government Actuary; and urges that part of that surplus should be used to restore the link between the basic pension and average earnings for the remaining years of this Parliament, thus ensuring that all pensioners share in the nation's increasing prosperity and preventing a further increase in the number receiving income support.]

Yesterday, 1,000 pensioners came to Parliament to campaign and to lobby the House for the restoration of the link between average earnings and the basic pension. Pensioners, rightly, feel insulted by this year's award of 75p. They correctly point out that the basic pension is not welfare—not a gift from a generous Government—but an entitlement for which they have paid throughout their working lives. They feel rightly contemptuous of some of the Government's other attempts to give them money in the form of a demeaning handout. [Interruption.]

The pensioners came here yesterday in great numbers, but I have not seen a syllable of report about their demonstration in this morning's newspapers. This morning, one of them asked me, "Must we behave as certain other groups do, and demonstrate more violently before the Government hear our just demand?" There is a surplus of £8 billion in the national insurance fund; there was £3 billion when we came into office and £5.9 billion last year. In 2002, there will still be £8 billion. The money is there. Why do not we honour the promise that we have made to the pensioners over the past 20 years to restore the link?

Mrs. Beckett

With respect to my hon. Friend, that was not the promise that we made over the past 20 years. Of course, I understand that pensioners are dismayed. He will realize—as perhaps they are, perfectly understandably, less willing to do—that the scale of the proposed increase is linked to the rate of inflation. It is a consequence of the low rate of inflation that that figure translates into about 75p. He talks—[Interruption.] Opposition Members are muttering about grinding the pensioners down. When my hon. Friend referred to pensioners' entitlement and said that pensioners regarded the award as contemptuous, Opposition Members cheered. I want to hear no more on that matter from Opposition Members. The Conservatives broke the link between pensions and earnings and took many other steps to erode the income of pensioners. It was a Mr. Michael Portillo—when he was a Member of this House—who said that the policy of the Conservative party would, over time, render the basic state pension nugatory. In consequence, he recommended that people should make private pension provision. The Government are starting to repair the damage done by the Conservative party, and Conservative Members have no right whatever to say anything, except to apologise.

I simply say to my hon. Friend that I do, of course, understand to the full pensioners' concern that they have paid their contributions and that they feel entitled to a decent pension, but he knows that the scheme is not funded—it is a pay-as-you-go scheme—and that the Government of the day have to find the resources.

The Government have chosen to give priority to the oldest pensioners, who, as my hon. Friend knows, are, for a variety of reasons, the poorest. We are doing as much as we can to help all pensioners, but giving priority to those who are least well off. I doubt that my hon. Friend will disapprove of that, although I know that he will continue to campaign for a greater increase for pensioners.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

My colleagues and I warmly endorse the sentiments expressed from the Labour Back Benches by the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn). We expressed very similar concerns in yesterday's debate on the economy. I hope that the Leader of the House will recognise that there is a real problem for a Government who seem to be listening to the tax cutters of middle England, not to those who are disadvantaged.

On the Representation of the People Bill, will the Leader of the House please give us a firm assurance that all parties will be involved in discussions about the proper way to handle it? I endorse her very proper reluctance to fall for the idea that the Floor of the House is the right place to deal with detailed constitutional matters. All too often in the past two years, we have seen that that is not always the best way to handle the details. Will she pay special attention to the recommendation of the Modernisation Committee that it may sometimes be appropriate to split matters of principle, which should be dealt with on the Floor of the House, from matters of detail, which should be dealt with in Committee upstairs?

May we have an early statement on the Government's detailed proposals for political donations? Instead of finding loopholes for tax exile millionaires, will the right hon. Lady carefully consider the recommendations of the Neill committee to help those on more modest means to make modest contributions to political parties by means of tax concessions? Will she read the remarks of Lord Neill of Bladen, chairman of that committee, in the debate on the Loyal Address in the other place yesterday, at column 480? He urgently, and very properly, encouraged the Government to take up his committee's proposal.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand that the hon. Gentleman's party endorses the concerns of my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn). I hope that I am not being too unkind when I say that the hon. Gentleman knows that the Liberal Democrat party has a problem, in that it is always prepared to encourage more spending on everything without knowing where the money is to come from. However, I accept that there are issues of concern, which will always continue to be discussed.

The hon. Gentleman asked that everyone should be involved in discussions about the handling of the Representation of the People Bill; I am happy to give that assurance. I entirely take his point that, with regard to such matters, often it is better for discussion of detail to be separated from discussion of principle. However, these are all issues that we can consider.

The hon. Gentleman asked for detailed proposals about political donations. I am afraid that I do not have in my head the details of the timing of an announcement on that matter, but obviously it comes up in the context of the legislation that we shall discuss during this Session.

I am aware that the Neill committee made the recommendation that the hon. Gentleman mentioned, and that Lord Neill expressed disappointment that the Government did not follow it. Lord Neill is a man of high reputation and standing, justly earned, but it is fairly common for those who chair such committees to be disappointed unless every dot and comma of everything that they recommend is accepted. I fear that the Government are not persuaded of the case for tax relief on donations to political parties.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My right hon. Friend may have noticed that, during Agriculture questions, several Conservative Members objected to British beef sold in France being labelled as British. They are obviously ashamed of British beef, whereas we stand up to protect it. In the light of their interventions, and so that they may again put their case to the House—because I am sure that the country will want to hear of their feelings—may we have a debate on labelling? It is an important issue. When beef is sold in France, a label saying "Produced in Britain" will help to secure a share of that market again.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes an interesting point. I share his view that, given the steps that, tragically, had to be taken in the aftermath of the dreadful BSE crisis, British beef is probably now the safest in the world. We should argue that something that is labelled "British beef' offers a greater guarantee of quality than can possibly be said of beef from any other origin. Over time, it will be possible for us to make and sustain that case. However, I fear that I cannot offer time for a special debate on labelling, although I understand—

Mr. Campbell-Savours

I will try again next week.

Mrs. Beckett

I am sure that my hon. Friend will try again next week.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Following Prime Minister Putin's statement yesterday to the Duma of the Russian Federation that the rise in the price of oil will permit the Russians to prosecute the war in Chechnya ad infinitum, will the Leader of the House ask her colleague the Foreign Secretary to come to the House to make an emergency statement about Her Majesty's Government's attitude to the humanitarian catastrophe that is occurring in Chechnya without any let or hindrance on the part of the west? Will the Government explain whether they are happy to allow credits to be disbursed to Russia in circumstances in which hundreds and thousands of people are being massacred and driven from their homes, or whether they will do the right thing and cut off credits to Russia?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman makes a point as well as asking for a statement from the Foreign Secretary. As I am sure that he is aware, the Government have engaged in discussions with the Russian Government about the handling of affairs in Chechnya and we have sought continually to find the right and the best way to exert the influence that the whole House would wish to see exerted. International pressure got an agreement to a humanitarian role for international organisations and, at the recent summit, it brought the Russians to accept that a political solution was needed.

On the suggestion about the need for an emergency debate, I remind the hon. Gentleman that we have just had a foreign affairs debate in the debates on the Queen's Speech and that Foreign Office questions will be held on 7 December. Opportunities will arise to discuss the subject without an emergency debate.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

Can my right hon. Friend confirm that the constitutional Bill, which will come to the Floor of the House next week, will contain changes to the law on the funding of political parties? The House desperately needs a debate on the funding of political parties and the country would like to see such a debate, so that relevant questions can be asked about the scandalous state of funding of the Conservative party and so that the stories can be exposed for what they are. Instead, the leadership of the Tory party is currently producing smears and smokescreens in an attempt to divert attention away from itself.

Mrs. Beckett

I have read some most extraordinary stories in the aftermath of what is obviously deep Conservative embarrassment about what has emerged about Mr. Ashcroft. I speak from memory, but I think that issues of funding do not arise in that Bill, but they will arise in a later Bill on the funding of political parties. However, I can assure my hon. Friend that, in this Session, there will be legislation that focuses on this issue. It is a matter that the House needs to resolve.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider the response that she gave to the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn)? Would not the debate that the hon. Gentleman has in mind give us the opportunity to remind ourselves that the Conservative Opposition campaigned in 1979 to break the earnings link that the then Labour Government had introduced? In two out of the three years in which the link would have applied, the Labour Government refused to implement their own legislation. When the late David Ennals was asked why he had not done the calculation correctly, he said that he was required to do it but that he was not required to get it right. Would not such a debate give us the opportunity to realise that the blatant cynicism of new Labour is every bit as bad as the blatant cynicism of old Labour?

Mrs. Beckett

I can only say to the hon. Gentleman that he clearly knows nothing whatsoever about his Government's track record on pensions policy, or he would not in a million years ask for a debate on it. I can think of nothing that I would enjoy more than to take part in such a debate and to repeat to Conservative Members precisely what they did in government. Their behaviour was disgusting, and they have never apologised for it.

Helen Jackson (Sheffield, Hillsborough)

Is the Leader of the House aware that next week is the international violence against women week? She will be aware that, unfortunately, in areas around the world where there is war, some of the most appalling acts involve violence against women, but also here at home, the percentage of crimes of violence that are categorised as domestic violence is on the increase. Will she find time for that issue to be debated in the Commons next week?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right to draw attention to that important event, and I am aware of the international week and the importance of the issue. She will know that there are a number of associated conferences and events, some of which have been arranged by local organisations and others by the Government. She will know also of the targeted funding being made available from the crime reduction programme for projects that target domestic violence here at home. I fear, however, that although I recognise that much work is being undertaken elsewhere, I cannot undertake to find time for an extra debate in the House.

Mr. Peter Luff (Mid-Worcestershire)

Obviously I am delighted that the Agriculture Committee will write a small footnote in parliamentary history when, next week, its report will become the first Select Committee report to be debated in Westminster Hall. Does the Leader of the House understand, however, that until she made her statement, we understood that the debate would take place in the following week? There seems to have been rather a worrying lack of consultation with the Select Committee about the date for that debate. I know that we are all finding our way on how Westminster Hall works, but may I urge her in future to make sure that the dates, as well as the subjects, for those debates are discussed with the relevant Select Committee staff and Chairmen?

Mrs. Beckett

May I say at once to the hon. Gentleman that I apologise that that was not the case. Certainly he is absolutely right to make his point. One of the reasons for giving the progress of business about a month ahead is so that, through the mechanism of the Liaison Committee and the Chairman of Ways and Means, we can try to make sure not only that the right debates are sought, but that they do not conflict with the concerns of the Select Committees. I am sorry if, for some reason, that did not happen on this occasion. As the hon. Gentleman says, next week will see the first debate in Westminster Hall, and we shall hope to do better in future.

Mr. Paul Truswell (Pudsey)

Will my right hon. Friend arrange for an early statement to be made about plans to tackle the enormous amount of pollution caused by combined sewer overflows throughout the country? Is she aware that there are thousands of those structures and during heavy rainfall they discharge untreated effluent and sewage into watercourses such as the picturesque Tyersal beck in my constituency? Does she agree that the House and the public require early assurance that plans are in hand to deal with that major environmental and health hazard?

Mrs. Beckett

I am aware that there are such problems, although I was not aware of the particular problem in my hon. Friend's constituency, and I am sorry to learn that it affects his constituents. There are areas of my constituency where such problems occur from time to time, and I am sure that he recognises, as I do, that they are a consequence of the backlog of work that had not been undertaken and which still needs to be addressed. I certainly recognise the concern, and I think that everyone realises that it is a problem that we shall have to tackle, but obviously the scale of the problem is such that it can only be tackled over time. I fear, however, that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on that matter in the near future because, as he will recognise, the pressure of business is considerable.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

The right hon. Lady has been good enough to tell the House the date on which we shall rise for Christmas. Is she aware, however, that on 23 September, her right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture told David Dimbleby, regarding the beef on the bone ban: I hope we can get the ban lifted, at least in England, before Christmas"? Given that we did not reach Question 12 on the Order Paper today, we may have denied the right hon. Gentleman the opportunity to make an important statement. Will the right hon. Lady assure us that he will be given that opportunity before Christmas?

Mrs. Beckett

I think that the hon. Gentleman is perhaps asking for an extension of the sitting of the House until closer to Christmas. He may find that that is not universally popular with his colleagues. I am sorry that the House did not get to his question—as I presume that it was—but I am sure that my right hon. Friend is most anxious to give the House news on that matter when he can.

Mr. Paul Marsden (Shrewsbury and Atcham)

Could my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on local democracy and elected mayors? The Government have given back democracy to the people of London by setting up the Greater London Authority, in stark contrast to the Conservatives, whose candidate for the post of mayor was recently described as one of "probity and integrity" by the Leader of the Opposition and whose book "The Eleventh Commandment" seems to refer to that well known edict "Thou shall not tell the truth to your party leader when asked whether thou hast any sleazy skeletons in thy own closet."

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right about the importance of restoring Londonwide government. I am sure that he, like me, recalls vividly the time not so long ago when separate London boroughs made separate decisions about the closure of their bridges over the river, which resulted in considerable traffic chaos for London. Our measure is certainly long overdue. As to the further issue that my hon. Friend raises about the former Tory candidate for mayor, the House recognizes—although I understand that not everybody wants to admit it—that yet again it casts an unfortunate light on the judgment of the Leader of the Opposition.

Mr. Christopher Gill (Ludlow)

May I draw the attention of the Leader of the House to early-day motion 62?

[That this House notes with interest Germany's recent demand for country of origin labelling for meat; and urges Her Majesty's Government to open urgent negotiations with other EU countries to bring about a change in the treaties so as to make country of origin labelling mandatory throughout the Community.]

The motion calls for mandatory country of origin labelling. The Leader of the House has already said that she is not prepared to give us a debate on the subject, but will she assure us that she will take up the issue with the partner nations in the European Union with a view to reviewing and amending the treaties so that country of origin labelling is made mandatory? That would be very helpful in making Governments come up with meaningful and clear labelling, which would in turn be helpful to the consumer. The right hon. Lady will also be mindful of the beneficial effect that it would have on the producers of livestock in this country, who are currently suffering from the fact that their product is not easily distinguishable from imported products.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to ensure mandatory labelling in the near future, but I can certainly assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government are committed to the underlying aim of his proposal, which is well informed choice and clear and unambiguous labelling. We are doing everything that we can nationally to clamp down on labelling and internationally to promote the cause of clear, unambiguous labelling across the board. We shall continue to work to that end.

Mr. Huw Edwards (Monmouth)

May I draw my right hon. Friend's attention to early-day motion 87?

[That this House deplores the unacceptable level of violence against women, and believes that a thorough review of civil and criminal law is needed to ensure that violent men are prevented from tracing their former partners and then assaulting and killing them; believes that this should include a strengthening of police powers and court sanctions when injunctions are broken, and that there should be a robust policy of arrest and prosecution under the criminal law, an end to the routine bailing of men for breach of the peace and an end to the downgrading of charges through plea bargaining; supports the implementation of domestic violence awareness training for all those working within the justice system, including family law solicitors and the judiciary; recognises the need to restrict access by violent partners to information about the location of women through court proceedings and the provisions of the Children Act 1989; and accepts that men who abuse women forgo their right to access.]

I should like to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Helen Jackson) in asking for a debate on domestic violence. The motion has been signed by 158 Members of Parliament from all parties who deplore the unacceptable level of violence against women and call for a thorough review of the civil and criminal law on the subject. Will my right hon. Friend join me in congratulating Abergavenny women's aid, which moved to new premises this week, and Monmouthshire county council on the support that it gives to that organisation?

Mrs. Beckett

I am happy to join my hon. Friend in welcoming the excellent work done by Abergavenny women's aid and the support given by Monmouthshire county council. He will know that there are many good local initiatives across the country and much good work is being done. He will also know that the Government published a report in the summer called "Living Without Fear", drawing together the initiatives across government that are promoting action against violence against women, including the allocation of money from the crime reduction programme. I assure him that we shall continue to work to that end. However, as I said to my hon. Friend the Member for Hillsborough, I fear that I cannot find time for another early debate.

Mr. David Chidgey (Eastleigh)

May I draw to the Leader of the House's attention the fact that in July 1997 the Foreign Secretary told the House that the Government are committed to preventing British companies from manufacturing, selling or procuring equipment designed primarily for torture".—[Official Report, 28 July 1997; Vol. 299, c. 65.] She may not be aware that such equipment includes leg irons and shackles that can be bought in America, having been manufactured in Britain by a company in Birmingham that owes its origins to its association with the slave trade. Such instruments can be bought freely over the counter on request. It appears that that is because it is still legal to manufacture such instruments of torture in this country provided that they are exported and sold as components. If they are later assembled by putting the chains to the leg cuffs, they can be sold as instruments of torture. Will she talk to her colleague, find time in this House to close this legislative loophole and stop this appalling trade?

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is correct that I am not aware of the issue, and nor, I would imagine, is my right hon. Friend the Foreign Secretary. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate, but I will draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends, who will certainly share his concern.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

May we have an early statement on the newly published school performance tables to show the unfortunate state of affairs whereby 50 schools see 20 per cent. of their pupils leave with no qualifications? That would provide an important opportunity for the School Standards Minister to explain to the House why it was necessary for the Government to attack some of our most successful schools, particularly the grant-maintained schools, which have done such a good job. Schools such as Blessed Thomas Holford and New Wellington, which are grant-maintained high schools, not grammar schools, achieve results of the order of 40 and 43 per cent. of children getting and five or more grade A to C GCSEs. Those are outstanding results from grant-maintained schools that flourished under the previous Government but are now threatened by this Government.

Mrs. Beckett

Everyone in the House wants excellence and high standards in education, but the notion that that is threatened in grant-maintained or any other schools is ludicrous. The Government are improving the position and improving funding for all schools. While it is important that the funding is well directed, because there is no automatic correlation between more money and higher standards, the Government are determined to ensure that it feeds through to higher standards.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

The Government have imposed huge increases in fuel duty so that 85p in every pound spent on fuel is tax. We have easily the highest fuel costs in western Europe. The Government have got away with it partly because the world oil barrel price has been as low as $10. Now oil is nudging $27 a barrel, and the increases cannot be hidden. It looks as though we will celebrate the millennium in Shropshire with a £3.50 gallon of fuel. Two thirds of people in Shropshire drive to work in a car. This is a huge taxation increase on lower paid people and the strategic road haulage industry is being affected. Can we have a debate next week?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I am afraid not. The hon. Gentleman knows that the matter has been extensively discussed in the House and outside. He was careful to say that the fuel duty increase was all down to this Government. The Opposition are already determined to forget that the fuel duty escalator was introduced by the Government that the hon. Gentleman supported. He and people outside the House know that the Chancellor has heeded some of the concerns that have been expressed. That was reflected in the proposals that he advertised in his pre-Budget statement. He dealt with one of the main concerns of those worried about fuel duty when he said that any increases above real terms would in future go into funds linked to transport provision.

Mr. Andrew Stunell (Hazel Grove)

Will the Leader of the House arrange an early debate on the housing benefit system, and in particular the damage that is being done to its principles by the activities of the rent officer service? Is she aware that in my area, Stockport, some 3,000 tenants face redetermination of their standard reference rent leading to drops of £20 a week in the support available to them? Does she realise the tremendous difficulties that that is causing?

Mrs. Beckett

All hon. Members are aware through their constituency case load of the impact of the rent officers. However, I was not aware of the concentrated problem that has arisen in the hon. Gentleman's area. He will know that the Government intend to publish a housing Green Paper in due course, which will examine the housing benefit system. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the matter, but I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. and hon. Friends, as they concern the sort of issue that they will want to consider in their discussions on that Green Paper.

Mr. Shaun Woodward (Witney)

The Leader of the House will be aware of the concern that is building up around the country about the Government's programme of closing community hospitals. She may not be aware that her right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health, with his former colleague, the right hon. Member for Holborn and St. Pancras (Mr. Dobson), sat on the decision on hospitals in Oxfordshire for 18 months, including proposals to close two community hospitals. Today, the Secretary of State has had the courage to announce that the Government are continuing with their closure programme, and that two more community hospitals will be closing at Burford and Watlington in Oxfordshire. That is at a time when the Deputy Prime Minister wants to expand the number of households in Oxfordshire. Will the Leader of the House find time for an urgent debate on the closure of those two hospitals in Oxfordshire, and how that policy can be reconciled with the Deputy Prime Minister's proposals to increase the number of people who will need those services in the county?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I cannot promise to find time for a special debate, but I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friends the Secretaries of State for Health and for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, especially about the link that he discerns between different policies. There is always concern about proposed changes or closures of hospital facilities and provision, but if we were to follow the policy advocated by the Conservative party's health spokesman, health service hospitals, other than those that deal with the most acute and urgent cases, would disappear altogether.

Mr. James Clappison (Hertsmere)

I have two requests. First, could time be found for a debate on police numbers, which is a source of great anxiety to my constituents given that the number of police officers serving Hertsmere has fallen by more than 20 per cent. since 1997? Secondly, has the right hon. Lady given any thought to subjecting the Freedom of Information Bill to the Special Standing Committee procedure, of which she and the Home Secretary have a high opinion? Would not that Bill be an obvious candidate for that procedure, so that it could receive more detailed scrutiny? Presumably, on freedom of information, the Government have nothing to hide.

Mrs. Beckett

The hon. Gentleman is not one of our regular contributors at business questions. It is usual to ask one question, not two. However, I shall deal with both his requests. He asked me to appoint a Special Standing Committee on the Freedom of Information Bill. It is important that the Conservative party does not forget that that legislation has already been through a special Committee procedure and has had special pre-legislative scrutiny. It has already had the scrutiny he seeks, so his point about the Government having something to conceal is nonsense.

The hon. Gentleman asked about police numbers. I am sorry to learn that there is concern about the level of police provision in his area, but the Conservative Government took the control of numbers out of the hands of Ministers and placed it in the hands of police authorities, although I recognise that that is influenced by other decisions. The only Government in recent years who have provided ring-fenced funding for extra police officers is the present Government, as the Home Secretary made clear at the party conference.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

The Leader of the House said that the Government wanted excellence in education. Will she arrange for a specific debate on the future of grammar schools? It would give Labour Members with grammar schools in their constituencies the opportunity to state whether they would back or sack those schools. There is a school places crisis in my constituency. Labour-controlled Lancashire county council has said that parents will have to bus their children miles out of the area to a neighbouring school to which they would prefer their children did not go. Clitheroe Royal grammar school, which is a beacon school and which the Minister for School Standards, who is sitting beside the right hon. Lady, has stated is an excellent school, is prepared to take an 30 extra youngsters, but the Labour-controlled county council has said that it will be allowed to provide only five extra places. The council does not want to be seen to be promoting grammar schools in the county.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot find time for a debate on what is, in fact, a long-running saga rather than a new issue. One of the hon. Gentleman's colleagues recently secured an Adjournment debate on grammar schools, which, unfortunately, the hon. Gentleman did not manage to attend.

The Government are determined to promote excellence in education across the board, but I would be unwilling to promote a debate that automatically linked excellence in education with the existence of grammar schools. There are many excellent schools of various kinds, and in the past, in particular, some schools that have been called grammar schools could not be described as excellent by any standards. I know that, because I was at one.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Will the Leader of the House reconsider her dismissive response to my hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), and arrange, as a matter of urgency, a full day's debate on extortionate petrol prices? That would meet the concerns of my distinguished 81-year-old constituent Mrs. Elizabeth Zettl, of High street, Buckingham, who at the time of the Budget debate was so angry about the Chancellor's policies that she urged me to roll up my speech and throw it at the Government Front Bench—an action that I was prevented from taking only by my natural regard for parliamentary etiquette and my respect for the Chair.

Mrs. Beckett

Let me say to the hon. Gentleman, and to his hon. Friend the Member for North Shropshire (Mr. Paterson), that it is good to see normal service being resumed.

We have already aired the issue of petrol prices. I am sorry to learn of the hon. Gentleman's constituent's concern, but I fear that this tends to happen. My own mother used to scream at the television when listening to the views of Conservative party spokesmen during the last Parliament.