HC Deb 06 April 2000 vol 347 cc1151-63


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 10 APRIL—Second Reading of the Nuclear Safeguards Bill [Lords].

Second Reading of the Television Licence (Disclosure of Information) Bill.

TUESDAY 11 APRIL—Second Reading of the Local Government Bill [Lords].

Motion on Standing Committee on Regional Affairs.

WEDNESDAY 12 APRII.—Opposition Day [9th Allotted Day]. Until about 7 o'clock, there will be a debate on "The Future of Sub Post Offices" followed by a debate on "Asylum Seekers". Both debates will arise on Opposition motions.

THURSDAY 13 APRIL—Debate on armed forces personnel on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.

FRIDAY 14 APRIL—Private Members' Bills.

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

MONDAY 17 APRIL—Second Reading of the Finance Bill.

TUESDAY 18 APRIL—Remaining stages of the Postal Services Bill.

WEDNESDAY 19 APRIL—Remaining stages of the Utilities Bill.

The Chairman of Ways and Means has named opposed private business for consideration at 7 o'clock.

THURSDAY 20 APRIL—Motion on the Easter recess Adjournment debate.

The House will also wish to be reminded that on Wednesday 12 April, there will be a debate on the White Paper on Food Safety in the European Union in European Standing Committee C.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for next week's business and an indication of the provisional business for the week after. I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for thinning out the business for next week in response to my request last week. I am sure that this is a sensible response to the pressure from her Back Benchers for a less demanding parliamentary programme, although we shall still deal with the Second Reading of two Government Bills. To inform the debate next Tuesday on the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs, will she place in the Library the relevant papers that she presented to the Modernisation Committee last year?

There is continued concern in the House about events in Zimbabwe. Might we expect a statement next week following the meeting of the General Affairs Council on Monday? Is there likely to be a statement next week on the reform of licensing hours? If there is, will Ministers respond to Madam Speaker's stern injunction yesterday not to trail the announcement, but to present it first to the House of Commons? Has the Leader of the House initiated the review of procedures in Whitehall that was asked for by you, Madam Speaker, in column 975 yesterday?

Finally, the House will have noticed that there is no time to debate the housing Green Paper published on Tuesday, the sporting strategy paper published yesterday, the intergovernmental conference White Paper published in February or the Royal Commission report on reform of the House of Lords. Is that not yet further evidence that the Government's programme is simply too large and is squeezing out the other functions of the Chamber—namely, debating matters of public interest?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his thanks. I remind him that my hon. Friends who are looking for improvement in the management of this place are seeking, not a less demanding, but a better managed schedule in which the House conducts its business more efficiently. I will certainly place in the Library the memorandum to which he referred. I thought that that had already been done and I apologise if it has not. I had asked for it to be put in hand.

The right hon. Gentleman asked for a statement on Zimbabwe and the licensing laws next week. I will draw both requests to the attention of my relevant right hon. Friends. He asked particularly that there should be no trailing of the licensing statement. As he will know, that is the responsibility of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, who is meticulous in his responsibilities to the House. I am aware of yesterday's unfortunate event and I concur with your view, Madam Speaker, that it is unacceptable—as, clearly, does the Department concerned. We will, indeed, remind colleagues and their Departments about the responsibilities that we all have to this House.

On the notion that there is something unusual about the scale of the programme and the other debates that we are not taking now, all hon. Members are perfectly well aware that at this time of year we concentrate on getting the legislative programme under way. The notion that the programme is too large is being fed by some erroneous information that, inexplicably, someone gave to The Times. It suggests that last year only 18 per cent. of the Bills in the legislative programme were introduced. That is, of course, just the Bills that were introduced in the House of Commons, as last year 31 Bills in total were introduced. We have two Houses in this Parliament; all Governments use both Houses and that includes this one. So although this year's programme is, of course, substantial, as people would expect of a reforming Government, it is certainly not unusual.

Mr. Hilary Benn (Leeds, Central)

Following the terrible tragedy that took place in Turkey last night, when two Leeds United supporters—Mr. Speight and Mr. Loftus—lost their lives, I am sure the whole House would want to express its condolences to the families on their very sad loss. In the light of that tragedy, could my right hon. Friend find time for a statement on the safety of British football supporters travelling abroad?

Mrs. Beckett

The whole House will share the concern expressed by my hon. Friend and will want to offer our condolences to the families of those who lost their lives and to all who were bereaved. I realise that this raises more general anxieties about safety—whether for football supporters or for other travellers. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on that subject in the near future, but there will be Foreign Office questions next week, so my hon. Friend may find an opportunity to raise the matter then. We may also have more information by then.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

May I endorse the request for an early statement and a debate on the Government's intentions on the reform of the House of Lords? Did the Leader of the House read more leaks from the Government in today's papers, apparently trailing their intentions on the matter? Surely it is inexcusable that such leaks should continue while there has been no statement to the House explaining how long we shall have to put up with a wholly unsatisfactory appointments system for the other place.

Does the Leader of the House recall that, last week, she gave me, and other Members who supported me, an explicit promise that there would be a statement and an opportunity to debate the issue of the farm summit? We were given a simple explanation as to the Government's intentions; that was placed in the Library. Indeed, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said that he was outlining his proposals.

The right hon. Lady told me: The discussions are under way and they will be properly reported to the House. In response to a Conservative Member who supported me, she said that it is also extremely important that Members have those properly reported to them and have an opportunity to pursue them, and that opportunity will come.—[Official Report, 30 March 2000; Vol. 347, c. 498-506.] There is a real crisis in agriculture. Many Members on both sides of the House are aware that the problems are not being properly addressed. The proposals are only a stopgap; they do not deal with the unsatisfactory situation in respect of the uncompetitive currency. When will we receive that statement?

Mrs. Beckett

I have not seen the reports on the Lords to which the hon. Gentleman refers. I am not aware that anybody has trailed or leaked anything. I am perfectly well aware that all sorts of people are all over the papers continually giving their opinions; that is not the same as the leaking of Government policy.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the farm summit. Yes, of course I said that the matter would be properly reported to the House. I believe that it was—through the vehicle of a written answer. I simply point out to the hon. Gentleman that, as I have said before, proper reporting to the House—as Madam Speaker has repeatedly made clear—includes written parliamentary answers. The timing of the farm summit was not such that it was helpful to the House—or indeed possible—to have an oral statement. There are, and will be, opportunities for the matter to be questioned.

As for the hon. Gentleman's final remarks, I understand that the NFU has written to all members welcoming the package.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Is there any chance of a statement next week on the difficulty faced by our forces, and indeed, those of other western countries, in Kosovo, where a situation is developing in which not only are Serbs being ethnically cleansed, but Albanians who do not support the KFA and have fallen out with the KLA are also being cleansed? This is rather an urgent matter.

Mrs. Beckett

The whole House is aware of the difficult situation in Kosovo; no one nurtures any illusions as to the fact that it will continue to be difficult for a considerable period. There are great tensions in the region. However, there will be Foreign Office questions on Tuesday, when, no doubt, such matters can be aired.

Mr. Christopher Chope (Christchurch)

Will the Leader of the House provide time next week for a debate on the need to standardise Government language, so that, for example, the word "inflation" means the same for pensioners, whose pensions go up by 1.1 per cent. this month, for taxpayers, who find that their tax allowances are going up by 1.2 per cent., and for motorists, who find that the inflation increase on the cost of fuel is 3.4 per cent? Could we couple with that a debate about the use of the word "next", particularly by the Chancellor of the Exchequer? In March, he described next April as April 2000 and, today in answer to questions, he described next April as April 2001. He cannot have been correct both times.

Mrs. Beckett

The thrust of the hon. Gentleman's argument seems to be that there is some difference in the way that the indices are measured and that the change has been brought about by this Government. It has not; we have not changed the measures that we inherited from the previous Government. If he does not like the way the pensioners index is measured, where has he been for the past 18 years?

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

My right hon. Friend will recall that, in the 1980s, a Greater London councillor, Mr. David Wetzel, was responsible for introducing a "fares fair" policy in London whereby all pensioners travelled free on local transport. Other people have tried to claim the credit, but the policy was introduced by Mr. David Wetzel. Can my right hon. Friend provide time for a debate on such matters, because we should extend that system nationally? People all over the country look very enviously on what has happened in London.

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in the near future. However, I remind my hon. Friend and the House that the Government have just introduced a national scheme that means that pensioners will be entitled to half fares across the country. That is something that the Conservative party conspicuously failed to do.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

Does the Leader of the House not accept that the position with regard to the other place is becoming intolerable? Time and time again, Parliament is demeaned by the appointments that are being made to the House of Lords. Surely it is time the Government introduced proper proposals that could be properly and urgently debated, so that, at the very least, we would know where everyone stands before the next election. The electorate would then be able to make their judgment about what is going to happen to their Parliament and how far the upper House, in particular, can be accountable to them as the electorate. The matter is urgent; it cannot be put off. Will the right hon. Lady give us a proper answer?

Mrs. Beckett

I can understand the right hon. Gentleman feeling that it is intolerable that, in the House of Lords, the Conservative party, which was so overwhelmingly rejected at the last election, still has a majority of 34 peers over the Labour party. I share his view that that is intolerable. The Government are seeking to address the issue, but obviously everything cannot be done in one fell swoop.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

May I return my right hon. Friend to the topic of the Standing Committee on Regional Affairs, which I raised with her last week? She then gave us an indication that the debate on setting the Committee up would be held on Monday in what is normally considered prime time. She has just announced that the matter will not be debated until after the Second Reading of the Local Government Bill and after likely votes at 10.30 on Tuesday evening. Will she assure me that that change did not come about because of pressure from the official Opposition, who have so little regard for the concerns of people in the English regions? Will she also assure me that the change in timing does not in any way reflect a lack of priority that the Government attach to the issue?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right. I shall not reveal too much about the discussions that go on through the usual channels, but he will have heard the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) thank me for taking off some of the business that was scheduled for Monday, and my hon. Friend is right to say that this issue was part of that business. In that sense, there clearly was a wish not to take on Monday all the business that had been scheduled for that day. I understand, and I regret, that it has not been possible to put the debate on earlier than its new scheduled time, but I hope that the proposal will find as great a welcome across the House as it does with my hon. Friend—otherwise those who call for a voice specifically for Members representing English seats could be accused of gross hypocrisy.

Mr. Graham Brady (Altrincham and Sale, West)

In his role as chairman of the Government's better regulation taskforce, Lord Haskins has made it clear that schools throughout the country are wallowing in a sea of red tape and that the bureaucracy that is being piled on them by the Government is standing in the way of improving standards. Can we have an urgent statement from the Secretary of State for Education and Employment about what the Government intend to do to stop the endless piling on of red tape and allow schools to manage themselves with proper freedom as to how they get on with their job?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course everyone is very conscious of the importance of giving schools freedom to do their job in the right context. The notion that what the Government have done bears no relationship to standards is not borne out by the facts, because standards have improved sharply, particularly in maths and, as a result of the literacy hour, in English. My recollection of Lord Haskins' remarks is perhaps a little fuller than the hon. Gentleman's. I recollect Lord Haskins saying that under the previous Government schools were smothered in red tape; he is not happy that this Government have reduced it enough. We shall continue to work at that.

Mr. Gerry Steinberg (City of Durham)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that there is considerable confusion and a little anger among some of my constituents about the winter fuel payments for males aged 60 to 65? They have been told that they will get the payment, but nothing else. To make matters worse, when one person phoned the Department of Social Security office to ask when he would get the payment, the reply was, "You tell us." People need to be reassured that the payment will be made and backdated, and they need to know when they will get it. I would be most grateful if my right hon. Friend could arrange for a statement to be made to the House as soon as possible to answer those questions and reassure people.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I cannot give my hon. Friend the information that he seeks at the moment, but I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Social Security. I hope that the information can speedily be provided to him and his constituents. I fear that the person whom his constituent contacted has something to learn about taking a customer-friendly approach.

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Since the responses of the Leader of the House on the House of Lords are either that it is all very difficult, or that the Government are busy with their reforming Bills, does she agree that it would have been much better for us all if the Government had decided, before they embarked on this venture, what they were eventually going to do, even if they could not have provided the whole of the legislation in a single tranche?

Mrs. Beckett

With respect to the right hon. Gentleman, we had that debate in spades in discussions on the House of Lords Bill. As for the notion that we should have made all the decisions before we even embarked on the debate, I know that he is aware, and I am certainly conscious of the fact, that trying to do it that way led to the House of Lords remaining in existence for a further 100 years.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is the Leader of the House aware that there is still the old-fashioned view that if we cannot have a House of Lords based totally on patronage, and if we cannot have one based on an election because that would reflect on the standing of the House of Commons, we should go back to the original Labour party proposal to get rid of the House of Lords, which has now been brought into total disrepute by the actions of the Tory leader in nominating Lord Belize of Sleaze? I have a suggestion: 60,000 miners are queuing up to get their chests X-rayed so as to get their payments, so we should use the House of Lords to settle the dispute for those miners with lung problems.

Mrs. Beckett

I was slightly surprised that it was a Conservative Member today who raised appointments to the Lords. I understand and respect the case that my hon. Friend puts for a unicameral system. If we decide not to accept that case, there is then a wholly different discussion about what the nature of the second Chamber should be. Much as I share, and I hope the whole House does—I know that all Labour Members do—the concern that my hon. Friend expressed about people in the mining community, and particularly about the suffering that many have endured for many years, I fear that I cannot find time to debate whether they should instead constitute a second Chamber.

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross)

Will the Leader of the House arrange for a statement to be made about the Government's intentions for the management of the fast reactor fuels at Dounreay? My many constituents employed there have been kept in the dark about the Government's intentions for years. They will not have been reassured by a written question from the hon. Member for Wigan (Mr. Turner), due to be answered today, which refers to options. Will the Government arrange for a statement on which they can be questioned?

Mrs. Beckett

I cannot undertake to find time for a statement specifically on the issues relating to Dounreay, although I understand the right hon. Gentleman's concern on behalf of his constituents. However, I can undertake to draw those concerns to the attention of the Secretary of State.

Mr. Mike Wood (Batley and Spen)

My right hon. Friend will realise that this month sees the third anniversary of the establishment of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. Will she arrange for an urgent statement about its progress so far, not least on the adequacy or otherwise of its funding?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand that the commission has made a case for additional staff and that the Home Secretary continues to give sympathetic consideration to that case, having already given the commission more resources at the beginning of last year. I believe that my right hon. Friend hopes to make an announcement in the not too distant future.

Mr. Stephen Day (Cheadle)

The right hon. Lady may be aware that Lord Whitty wrote to me recently apologising for the delay in introducing regulations that would allow my constituents at Chester's Croft in Cheadle Hulme, and others similarly affected in the country, to claim the compensation that residents of permanent homes can claim. The residents of Chester's Croft have been classified as living in mobile homes, even though the homes have been there for 40 years. Lord Whitty said that the regulations would be introduced shortly. Will the right hon. Lady endeavour to find out when precisely "shortly" will be, since it is some weeks since Lord Whitty wrote to apologise?

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I cannot give the hon. Gentleman off the cuff the information that he seeks. I can undertake to contact my noble Friend and ask him to deal as speedily as he can with the hon. Gentleman's request.

Mr. Harry Barnes (North-East Derbyshire)

Has my right hon. Friend seen early-day motion 312?

[That this House notes that international currency speculation currently stands at about $1.5 trillion a day and that the vast majority of this is unrelated to trade in real goods and services; further notes that such enormous speculative flows substantially undermine the powers of national governments and regional blocs; believes that a small levy on such speculation, known as the Tobin Tax after the name of the Nobel Laureate who originated the concept, could both help to dampen down the scale and scope of speculation and raise substantial revenues, raising as much as $250 billion each year for good causes such as development and environmental protection; recognises that such levy would have to be universal or as near to that as possible and contain safeguards to minimise and eliminate tax evasion; notes that the Tobin Tax has the backing of the Canadian Parliament, the Finnish Government and campaign groups such as War on Want; and urges the Government to discuss the concept with its partners in international organisations such as the World Trade Organisation, the IMF, G8 and the European Union with a view to drawing up an internationally co-ordinated and feasible tax regime for currency speculation.]

It has been signed by 100 hon. Members of all parties. Given the horrors that consume the world, especially in Kosovo, Mozambique, Ethiopia and elsewhere, is there not a case for the international community to consider a tax on international currency speculation, which is massive throughout the world and which destabilises economies? May we have a debate on the Tobin tax—the question is: Tobin or not Tobin?

Mrs. Beckett

I feel tempted to let that remark stand alone. Of course the Government accept the importance of trying to promote a more stable international system for handling capital. We have been working hard to that end. Consideration has been given to the ideas that lie behind the proposal for the Tobin tax, but I fear that the Government are not convinced that it is the best way forward at present.

Mr. Patrick Nicholls (Teignbridge)

Will the right hon. Lady consider an early debate on the provision of banking services in rural areas? Would that not give us an opportunity to consider how Barclays can possibly justify closing 172 branches and depriving towns such as Dawlish in my constituency of proper banking services? Would it not also give us the opportunity to hear from the Government at first hand what steps they have taken to defend people in rural areas from the practices of Barclays—apart from the announcement by an Under-Secretary of a ludicrous one-man boycott?

Mrs. Beckett

I have every sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's constituents and I understand the concern that he expresses, which I know is shared by hon. Members on both sides of the House. I cannot remember great activity on the part of the party that he represents during the years when lots of other things were closing in rural areas, including many banks. One of the reasons why people are so concerned about what Barclays is doing is that this is a further step along the chain. As the hon. Gentleman will know, the Government have set up mechanisms to scrutinise how the banks operate and whether they do so efficiently, effectively and with regard to concerns raised by others in society. The Government will continue to keep up pressure on the matter.

Mr. Michael Clapham (Barnsley, West and Penistone)

My right hon. Friend will have seen reports in the press this week that people as young as 15 are addicted to heroin. In Barnsley, because of the cheapness of a wrap of heroin, the drugs action team considers that heroin is becoming a drug of first use. Will she find time for an early debate on the drugs scene, so that we can consider whether the Government's strategy is in need of adjustment?

Mrs. Beckett

I have seen the reports to which my hon. Friend refers. The whole House will find them disturbing. He knows that the Government continue to keep under review the issues raised by that difficult subject. I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in the House in the near future, but he might like to explore the possibilities of Westminster Hall.

Mr. James Gray (North Wiltshire)

A moment ago, the right hon. Lady was airily dismissive of the request from my hon. Friend the Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady) for a debate about Lord Haskins' report on the overload on head teachers. Perhaps she will listen more carefully to Mr. Hart, the general secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, who states in a report this morning that 93 per cent. of head teachers believe that they are seriously overloaded as a result of the bureaucracy and unnecessary tasks loaded on them by the Government. Will the right hon. Lady reconsider her airy dismissal of my hon. Friend's request for a debate, and call for one next week?

Mrs. Beckett

I did not dismiss the request from the hon. Member for Altrincham and Sale, West (Mr. Brady), airily or otherwise. I merely pointed out that his recollection was a little partial. Of course the Government recognise that it is important to ease the burden of stuff that goes from the centre to schools, although schools will no doubt welcome the post that they get in the near future, when they receive their cheque as a result of the Budget.

Mr. John Cummings (Easington)

May I press my right hon. Friend on the matter of banking services? She knows that Judas Iscariot was rewarded with 30 pieces of silver for the betrayal of one man. The chief executive of Barclays is to be rewarded with 30 million pieces of silver for the betrayal of hundreds of thousands of longstanding, loyal customers. In view of the hardship that will be inflicted on my constituents in the village of Easington Colliery, will my right hon. Friend agree to a debate to be held in Government time and in the Chamber on the future of banking services throughout the United Kingdom?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a strong point. However, I fear that it is not likely that we will be able to find Government time for a debate in the House in the near future on that subject. It is Department of Trade and Industry questions on 11 May, and my hon. Friend might look to that and to other opportunities to raise the matter in the Chamber.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Will the Leader of the House say whether the country is to be blessed again this year with another edition of that—perhaps not so popular—glossy brochure known as the annual report, for those who are so dim that they do not realise how brilliant the Government are?

If an annual report is to be published, will the Government show, under the countryside section, how many farmers have gone under in the past 12 months, and the average income of farmers; how many post offices have closed in the past 12 months, and how many are expected to close when the social security payments are changed; how much extra petrol tax people living in rural areas have paid over the past 12 months; and how many rural schools have closed over the past 12 months? Perhaps the report could include the statement from the Minister of State at the Department for Education and Employment, who this week closed one of my rural schools, saying: Closure seems unlikely to impact greatly on the community, partly because of the already low numbers at the school, and the availability of alternative community facilities. Does not that clearly demonstrate that the Government do not understand the countryside?

Mrs. Beckett

I have not been thinking much about the annual report, but I expect there will be one, as it is supposed to be annual. I shall draw the hon. Gentleman's proposal for one to the attention of those responsible. He and the House may find it slightly surprising that there were substantial sales to the public of that document last year. I am speaking purely from memory, but I think that about 20,000 copies were sold. That may say something about a lack of entertaining reading material, but I can only give the hon. Gentleman the facts.

The hon. Gentleman has given me a useful idea, which I shall certainly pass on to those responsible for the content of the document. It should have an annex, comparing the record of this Government on all the items that he cited with that of the previous Government.

Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East)

Hon. Members who have a particular interest in housing have waited patiently for three years for a major debate on the subject in the Chamber. This week, the first comprehensive review of housing policy for 23 years was published. I congratulate the Government on that excellent document. Can we please have a major debate in the Chamber before the Government introduce any housing Bills?

Mrs. Beckett

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his remarks. I share his welcome for the Green Paper. I take account of his observations about a debate in the Chamber, but I fear that such a debate is unlikely in the near future. I understand his anxiety for no legislative proposals of substance to be introduced before the matter has been more fully debated. I am confident that the Green Paper will allow a forum for such a debate throughout the country.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

The Modernisation Committee differs from other Select Committees in that it can call any number of hon. Members as expert witnesses. Can we inform its deliberations through a debate in the Chamber about our working hours before we reach any conclusions? Those of us who sit on the very Back Benches suspect that any change in the arrangements might deny us the ability to scrutinise Bills.

On programme motions, the right hon. Lady will recall that those agreed through the usual channels for the Scotland Bill ensured that many clauses and amendments that were important to Back Benchers were not scrutinised.

Mrs. Beckett

Of course, the Modernisation Committee meets to discuss such matters. There is no question of the arrangements for this House being changed as a result of that Committee's deliberations without their being aired and given an opportunity for comment in the House. That is always the case. The arrangements are a House, not a party matter.

To go back as far as the Jopling report, those of us who discussed programming Bills and the scale of discussion agreed to such procedures because they are the best way of trying to ensure that Back-Bench Members scrutinise the provisions of most concern, rather than simply talking them out by accident or through guillotine motions.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham)

May we have an early debate on the applicability of the Register of Members' Interests? If my right hon. Friend reads column 116 of Hansard on 27 March, she will find the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) opining at great length on petrol prices. If she looks at page 116 of the Register of Members' Interests, she will read that the shadow Chancellor is on the payroll of Kerr McGee, the world's third biggest petrol exploration company. The right hon. Gentleman did not register that interest before the debate.

After last week's scandal of the appointment of Baron Belize of Sleaze to the House of Lords because of all the money that he gave the Tory party, is it not clear that sleaze is the soft underbelly of the shadow Cabinet, and at the heart of the Conservative party?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend draws attention to the Register of Members' Interests and the information contained therein. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate on the matter in the near future.

I am conscious that it is important to keep the register as up to date as possible and that the point of the register is to ensure that information is not hidden. Hon. Members should make it clear in the House when they have interests that are relevant to the debate. I hope that the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Portillo) did that.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

May we have a debate on the Government's shameful attitude to the future of grammar schools? Such a debate would give the Secretary of State for Education and Employment the chance to explain why he and the Under-Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions, the hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Ms Hughes), have formally abandoned any pretence of neutrality on the subject and now publicly campaign for the destruction of some of our finest state schools in the borough of Trafford.

Mrs. Beckett

I think that I know perhaps a little more about the fine schools in the borough of Trafford than does the hon. Gentleman. There is nothing shameful about the Government's attitude in making it plain that we want high standards in all our schools, which should be the aspiration of Members in every part of the House, and believe that decisions on those matters should be in the hands of parents. That used to be Conservative party policy, but I notice that it is no longer

Mr. Andrew Love (Edmonton)

May I press my right hon. Friend for a debate on the housing Green Paper? My right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister said that it represents the first comprehensive statement for 23 years, but I believe that it provides the first real opportunity for Parliament to put right 23 years of neglect and prejudice in housing policy. This is a matter of great concern to my constituents and to people across the Greater London region, and it is important that Parliament's views be taken into account during the consultation, which ends in July.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend makes a powerful point. He has a long track record of campaigning on and pursuing those issues, not only as a Member of Parliament. I can only say that I do not anticipate being able to find time for a debate in the near future. As he will know, at this time of year the emphasis is usually on the progress of Government legislation, but he and my hon. Friend the Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) have made an important point and I undertake to bear it in mind.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

According to independent and objective House of Commons Library information, typical working families are £13 a week worse off this week, despite the Chancellor's denials and obfuscation. Bearing in mind her responsibilities to the House rather than her membership of the Government, can the Leader of the House find time for a debate on whether the Government dispute the independence and objectivity of the information that the Library provides?

Mrs. Beckett

I have long experience of the impartiality of the information provided by the House of Commons Library and of the partiality with which Members read and present it.

Mr. Patrick McLoughlin (West Derbyshire)

Is that a confession?

Mrs. Beckett

No, it is a statement of fact. Members on both sides of the House use information to suit their purposes, which is no doubt why people talk of lies, damned lies and statistics. Having announced the Second Reading of the Finance Bill for the week after next, I do not feel the need to provide a further opportunity for those issues to be aired.

Mr. John Cryer (Hornchurch)

My right hon. Friend will have seen early-day motion 595, which stands in the name of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Mr. Best), on the United States plan to develop a national missile defence system:

[That this House notes that the United States plans to develop a National Missile Defence system and that President Clinton is due to make a decision about further developments this summer; is concerned that the United States has asked Russia to amend the 1972 Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty, which is widely considered to be the cornerstone of international arms control; believes that the deployment of a NMD system could destabilise international relations and result in further vertical and horizontal proliferation; is worried that Britain will collaborate with the United States on NMD through Menwith Hill and RAF Fylingdales in Yorkshire; and calls on the Government to initiate a debate on the advisability of Britain's involvement in these potential and destabilising developments.]

The plan could be globally destabilising and it has been made by an extremely aggressive world power that tends to bomb any enemy that it does not happen to like back into the stone age at every given opportunity. People inside and outside the House are also concerned because the Government may be going along with the system in some way, particularly as RAF Fylingdales and Menwith Hill in Yorkshire may be involved. Can we have a debate or at least a statement by a Defence Minister?

Mrs. Beckett

The Government certainly share my hon. Friend's view that the anti-ballistic missile treaty and broader strategic stability should be preserved, and continue to work to that end. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a special debate on the specific issue that he raises in the near future, especially as we are to have a defence debate in the next couple of weeks. However, I am sure that he has taken note of and comfort from the fact that his words have been heard by my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces.