HC Deb 13 April 2000 vol 348 cc501-15 12.31 pm
Sir George Young (North-West Hampshire)

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

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

The business for next week will be as follows:

  • MONDAY 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.
  • I remind the House that that sitting will follow a Friday pattern: I would hate to see hon. Members arriving for a different pattern of sitting.
  • The House may also be asked to consider any Lords messages which may be received.
  • The business for the week after the Easter break will be as follows:
  • TUESDAY 2 MAY—Progress on consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.
  • WEDNESDAY 3 MAY—Conclusion of consideration in Committee of the Finance Bill.
  • THURSDAY 4 MAY—Debate on the Royal Commission report on the reform of the House of Lords on a motion for the Adjournment of the House.
  • FRIDAY 5 MAY—Private Members' Bills.
  • I should like to inform the House of business to be taken in Westminster Hall for when the House is sitting during May.
  • THURSDAY 4 MAY—Debate on a sporting future for all.
  • THURSDAY 11 MAY—Debate on a Select Committee report—subject to be announced.
  • THURSDAY 18 MAY—Debate on the future of the construction industry.
  • THURSDAY 25 MAY—There will be no debates in Westminster Hall.

Sir George Young

The House is grateful for next week's business and an indication of business for the week after the Easter recess. Does the right hon. Lady envisage making a business statement next Thursday?

I am glad that at long last we are to debate the Wakeham report, although I note that the chosen date of 4 May is one when the country's attention may be focused on other events. The House is due to debate the Utilities Bill on Wednesday. Has the Leader of the House anything further to tell us about Government amendments to the Bill, as 359 have already been tabled? Do the Government plan to withdraw even more clauses?

In view of the growing interest in the way in which the House operates, may we debate the Liaison Committee's report promoted at Prime Minister's Question Time by the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay)—possibly the only promotion that he is likely to see?

There is continued concern in the House about events in Zimbabwe. Will the Foreign Secretary undertake to keep the House informed?

Will the Leader of the House tell us whether statements are expected next week on defence procurement or on the future of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency?

Could we have a statement from the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport clarifying whether the Government have prejudged the bid to run the lottery? On Tuesday, the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson), declared in Westminster Hall: The Government always have been, and still are, committed to a not-for-profit lottery.—[Official Report, Westminster Hall,11 April 2000; Vol. 348. c. 11 WH.] Does that remain true when there are two bids?

Finally, can we have a debate on the report on Rover by the Select Committee on Trade and Industry, in view of continuing concern about the future of motor manufacturing in this country?

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

It sounds as though we will be here all Easter.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right: that is an extensive programme.

I anticipate making a business statement next Thursday and hope, through discussion with the usual channels, to establish a time that is convenient for the House.

The right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) was uncharacteristically ungracious about the timing of our debate on the reform of the House of Lords. He has been calling for the debate for some time and the day set is, after all, a sitting day. He argues that there will be passionate interest in local elections; I hope that he is right.

The Utilities Bill will be debated in the House in the near future. I do not anticipate dramatic changes, although it is right that the House should make that legislation effective.

I have taken note of the desire expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) that the Liaison Committee's report should be debated. The Government are giving the report's many profound recommendations careful consideration, and we will report to the House in due course.

We shall endeavour to keep the House informed about Zimbabwe.

I cannot say now whether or when a statement is likely on the defence issues raised by the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire.

Furthermore, having already had several debates and statements on Rover, I do not anticipate that another is likely in the near future, although I shall certainly bear the right hon. Gentleman's remarks in mind.

The claims that either the Department for Culture, Media and Sport or the Government have prejudged the award of the lottery contract cannot possibly be true. As I am sure the right hon. Gentleman knows, the selection of the next operator of the national lottery is not a matter for the Government; it is a matter for the National Lottery Commission. I understand that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has written to him about the matter, and that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State will be answering a question in the near future to put the matter beyond doubt.

Mrs. Alice Mahon (Halifax)

Has my right hon. Friend had time to read early-day motion 614, on free long-term care for the elderly?

[That this House warmly welcomes the support for free long-term nursing home care for the elderly expressed by the Secretary of State for Health following his speech to the Royal College of Nursing Congress in Bournemouth on 5th April; notes that this is in line with the recommendations of the Royal Commission Report on Long Term Care, With Respect to Old Age, published in March 1999; asks the Secretary of State to make a formal statement to the House at the earliest opportunity; and urges the Government to bring forward legislation as soon as possible, abolishing means-tested charges for elderly, nursing and residential home care and lifting the burden from all those elderly citizens who are in, or soon to enter, long-term care.]

My right hon. Friend will be aware of the awful current arrangements, under which the elderly and the sick are subjected to means-tested nursing charges—a concept quite at odds with the ideals of the national health service. Has our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Health said whether he intends to make a statement in the near future?

Mrs. Beckett

I am well aware of the great interest taken by my hon. Friend and many other hon. Members in those issues, which are of considerable importance. The Government are considering all the recommendations of the royal commission on long-term care in the context of our overall spending review. My hon. Friend can be confident that, when we have announcements to make, they will be made to the House.

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall)

We strongly endorse the call for an early debate on the Liaison Committee's report, but may I draw to the right hon. Lady's attention the fact that that is a House of Commons matter? It is not primarily a matter for the Government, so to hear that the Government are giving careful consideration to the report's profound recommendations fills me with considerable concern; that is the nearest thing to a kick into the long grass that we have heard this afternoon.

I endorse the view of the right hon. Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) that an early debate on Lords reform is extremely important, if we are obtain a statement from the Government on the timetable for phase 2. There is a widespread view in the House that the status quo is not a long-term option; it can only go on for a year or two. The appointments system is so ridiculous and has been brought into such disrepute by recent events that it cannot continue.

Will the Leader of the House find time after the Easter recess to debate the continuing and increasingly obvious problem of political amnesia which appears to have struck some hon. Members in recent days? Not only have Conservatives failed to remember their tax increases, but, yesterday, they completely failed to remember their own action in respect of the closure of post offices, if the right hon. Lady was present for Agriculture questions a few minutes ago, she will know that they now have the nerve to have forgotten completely not only their mismanagement of the BSE crisis, but their demolition of the milk marketing scheme, which completely destroyed dairy farmers.

Mrs. Beckett

I heard, with astonishment equal to the hon. Gentleman's, the remarks that the Leader of the Opposition made yesterday about the closure of post offices, and I have frequently heard extraordinary remarks about tax increases. I missed the Conservatives' forgetting that they had some hand in the BSE crisis, but I am most grateful to the hon. Gentleman for calling it to my attention. I shall certainly bear in mind that that is yet another area in which Conservatives, who were still talking about the record of the previous Labour Government 18 years after they had ceased to hold office, do not seem to be able to remember what they were doing little more than 18 months ago.

With regard to the other issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, I hope that we will have a constructive and useful debate about Lords reform. As I hope the hon. Gentleman is aware, the Government are keen to proceed with further reform, which we hope to be able to do on the basis of common ground and consensus. It is not clear whether that is a possibility, but the Government are anxious to explore it. There was an earlier debate in the Lords, and it will be helpful to see how the debate goes in this House.

On the Liaison Committee report, I fully accept that that is a matter for the House. I understand the hon. Gentleman's remarks, in the knock-about of this place, about the Government saying that they would give it careful consideration, but he would not be very pleased if we said that we would not give it careful consideration.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

Any progress on the Intelligence and Security Committee annual report debate?

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Shh! It' s a secret.

Mrs. Beckett

I am afraid that I am not in a position to give my hon. Friend any information about that. [Laughter]

Mr. Peter Brooke (Cities of London and Westminster)

Does the Leader of the House recognise that the principal example of political amnesia in recent months has been the inability of the Prime Minister to remember that the fox hunting Bill of the hon. Member for Worcester (Mr. Foster) never went near the House of Lords at all, delighted though I am that we are to debate House of Lords reform?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand the right hon. Gentleman's point. However, the Prime Minister has always made it plain that it was consideration of the impact on the Government's programme primarily, though not solely in the House of Lords, which led the Government to the conclusion—[HON. MEMBERS: "Come on!] There is no point in Opposition Members whingeing about it.

As it was made crystal clear to the Government that in the House of Lords there were Members who felt even more strongly about the freedom to continue killing foxes than about the freedom to continue operating as the House of Lords—in other words, they attached greater importance to that issue than to House of Lords reform—the Government were under no illusions. Indeed, we were explicitly threatened that it would cost us the rest of our legislative programme if we did anything in that Parliament further to progress that private Member's Bill. It was clear, therefore, that there was nothing to be gained—certainly, the Bill could not be gained—by finding extra time. That was the Government's conclusion. If it is the view of Opposition Members that these are not matters of balance and judgment as to where advantage can be gained and lost, no wonder they are in opposition and we are in government.

Mr. Paul Flynn (Newport, West)

When can we debate the extraordinary recent history of British Nuclear Fuels, which has been condemned internationally for falsifying safety reports? This week The Guardian and "Dispatches" revealed correspondence—the documents look impressive and appear to be genuine—which claim that British Nuclear Fuels public affairs department has allegedly conspired with hon. Members to undermine the work of one Minister and one Back Bencher.

Mrs. Beckett

I have seen brief reference to the documents to which my hon. Friend refers. I have no knowledge as to whether they are genuine. All I can say is that the attempts appear to have been conspicuously unsuccessful.

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood)

Will the right hon. Lady acknowledge that it is time that we had a proper debate on foreign affairs, not only in view of the extremely grave situation in Rhodesia, which potentially affects the livelihood and security of British nationals, but because of the bizarre statement by the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Leeds, West (Mr. Battle), who called on Premier Oil to withdraw from the Yetagun oil project in Myanmar, without any legal basis for such an instruction? Is not the Government's foreign policy totally discredited and increasingly embattled? If China acts against Tibetans, or the Russians obliterate Grozny, the Government do not seem to care, but a British company legally doing business in Myanmar must pack its bags and go home.

Mrs. Beckett

At Foreign Office questions, some 40 minutes was spent on Zimbabwe, which is the country's name.

The hon. Gentleman is entitled to differ from the Minister's attitude to Burma. However, it is widely acknowledged that the civil and human rights position in that country is appalling. Indeed, many people would argue that it was uniquely awful. I am surprised that the hon. Gentleman does not believe that it is right for Ministers at the British Foreign Office to bring pressure to bear to improve that position.

Ms Margaret Moran (Luton, South)

The all-party group on domestic violence has recently concluded an online consultation—which involved 1,000 contributions from communities throughout the country—with survivors of domestic violence. The powerful contributions include evidence of violence and abuse against children, and even child death through the courts granting child contact orders to families with a history of domestic violence. Will my right hon. Friend agree to an early debate to enable hon. Members to consider ways in which we can amend the Children Act 1989 to protect children who desperately need our help?

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's anxiety about this important subject. I also understand her wish to remind the House of the value of the online consultation, in which she has taken a great interest and which she is trying to develop so that hon. Members can use modern technology to gain even more information, and to give people the opportunity to make their views and concerns known here. I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for an early debate on the specific subject to which she refers, and that the Government are not in a position to consider the Children Act 1989. However, the issue is worth airing, and I recommend to my hon. Friend the proceedings in Westminster Hall.

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon)

Will the right hon. Lady cast her mind back to yesterday's debate on sub-post offices, when the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry mentioned the possibility of subsidies for sub-post masters and mistresses? So little detail was provided that I said: There was talk of subsidy. How much? How is it to be dealt with? Has it been agreed with the Treasury? I hope that the Minister who replies to the debate will clarify the matter.—[Official Report, 12 April 2000; Vol. 348, c. 394.] To be generous, perhaps the Minister did not spell it out because of time constraints. Nevertheless, the matter was not clarified. It is so important to the lives of sub-post masters and mistresses that we should have a statement next week so that they know what the Government are up to.

Mrs. Beckett

We shall have a debate on the remaining stages of the Postal Services Bill on Tuesday, and an opportunity to raise the matter may arise then. Of course, my right hon. Friend had clearance from the Treasury to make his observations. However, details of the proposals may still be under consideration; we are talking about proposals that will be considered if problems arise. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will welcome the steps that the Government are taking to safeguard the future of small sub-post offices. Those steps were not taken or even contemplated by the previous Government.

Mr. Richard Burden (Birmingham, Northfield)

I ask my right hon. Friend to reconsider the possibility of holding an early debate next week on Rover in the light of today's Select Committee report. Tomorrow many thousands of Rover workers at Longbridge will go on a two-week shutdown. They do not know whether they will return to jobs or whether their futures will have been traded away to a group of venture capitalists. Today's Select Committee report emphasises the importance of careful consideration of alternative bids. Can we have a debate next week to ascertain how hon. Members and the Government can assist that process?

Mrs. Beckett

Of course I understand, and the whole House recognises, that my hon. Friend and his parliamentary neighbours have done a great deal to advocate the cause of the workers at Longbridge and continue to keep up their great interest in and advocacy of that work force's perfectly understandable concerns. He rightly says that the Select Committee has produced an important report, but he will know that the Government have not had much time to consider it. I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry; he may wish to draw them to the attention of the Liaison Committee, which makes proposals to the Government on debating Select Committee reports.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

Will the Leader of the House consider having a debate after Easter on accountability for ministerial statements? I ask for such a debate because on 13 April 1999 the then Minister for Transport in London, the hon. Member for Hampstead and Highgate (Ms Jackson), made a remark. By correspondence, I sought a justification for it. A year later, I have received a letter from a private secretary in that Department saying: Ms Jackson's remark was based on briefing from the Labour party and your correspondence has accordingly been treated as political. I seek a debate because that is a method by which Ministers can side-step their accountability to Parliament for remarks made at the Dispatch Box. We also need to know when Ministers are making party political statements on behalf of the Labour party and are therefore not accountable and when they are speaking as Ministers with proper briefing. That is an important matter and I hope that the Leader of the House will be able to accede to my request.

Mrs. Beckett

I can think of few less profitable ways of spending time.

Ms Julia Drown (South Swindon)

My right hon. Friend may be aware that the deadline for adding herbicide-tolerant maize to the national list of seed varieties is only a week away. If that maize is added to the national list, it will, for the first time, enable genetically modified crops to be grown commercially in this country. Given the public concerns that have been raised over GM technology, will the Government find time for an early debate on that important issue?

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a debate in the near future, although, like my hon. Friend, I recognise how close that deadline is. I am aware that the relevant Ministers have the matter under review, and she will probably know that it has been made plain that the Government do not intend to allow commercial planting until tests have been extensively studied. However, I shall draw her remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

May I follow up the question asked by the hon. Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown)? The Leader of the House says that the Government will not allow planting, but once GM maize is on the seed list there will be nothing to prevent it from being planted, other than the good will of the manufacturers involved. Will she find time for a debate? People who rightly want to object to the addition of GM crops to the seed list have to pay £30 for the privilege. As if that were not bad enough, they will not be able to object at all in future years because the matter will be entirely for the Minister to decide. Will the right hon. Lady consider that?

Mrs. Beckett

Again, all I can do is undertake to draw the hon. Gentleman's remarks and concerns to the attention of my right hon. Friend. I fear that I cannot find time for a debate in the House in the near future, but the hon. Gentleman, like my hon. Friend the Member for South Swindon (Ms Drown), may want to consider the merits of Westminster Hall.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Does my right hon. Friend fancy having a statement next week encapsulating her thoughts on what happened on the Floor of the House this week? On Monday, a question on asylum, which is a very important subject, took 21 minutes. Tuesday was much better as an answer on Zimbabwe given at the end of Foreign Office questions rescued Question Time, but on Wednesday, by my calculation, the Leader of the Opposition occupied some 18 minutes of Prime Minister's questions.

By what alchemy or authority does a Leader of the Opposition have a right to ask six questions? Is it understood how demeaning it is to Parliament to see the ranting that is now Prime Minister's questions? Can we not go back to the old custom of addressing questions not to the day's engagements, but specifically to the Prime Minister's responsibilities? Anything else should be transferred.

Mrs. Beckett

I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for a discussion of the kind proposed by my hon. Friend, but I agree that there are occasions on which Prime Minister's Question Time may not be a good advertisement for the intellectual qualities and capacity of the House. You, Madam Speaker, frequently point that out to us all.

My hon. Friend's last point about the content of Question Time is very important. The trend that he identified has developed over many Parliaments, and I cannot say that I anticipate a likely return to a more subject-based Question Time; but I understand his concern, and I know the Chair feels that the House might have more regard to the way in which we conduct our debates. Perhaps all Members will heed those remarks.

Mr. Stephen O'Brien (Eddisbury)

We are about to debate the longest Finance Bill for a century. Will the Leader of the House assure us that the Government's allocation of time for that debate will reflect the huge length of the Bill, and that we shall have time for proper discussion of, not least, the climate change levy—which, according to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, will be revenue neutral for the private sector? A representative of a company in my constituency—LINPAC Group, one of the most successful private firms in the country—wrote to me saying of the Financial Secretary: I do not know which planet he is from but I notice that he says the Levy package is expected to be broadly neutral between manufacturing and services!

A debate is urgently needed, because the prospect of the levy is causing real hardship and concern to local manufacturers.

Mrs. Beckett

We have just engaged in debates on the Budget itself. I am not sure whether the hon. Gentleman was able to contribute, but certainly a number of days are available on which Members can raise such concerns.

I recognise that this is the longest Finance Bill in history; indeed, I am particularly mindful of the fact. The hon. Gentleman may not be aware that the Bill contains measures that repeal other legislation, including, I understand, some 40 pages of complex legislation on paying and collecting agents. Nevertheless, the Government appreciate that the House will want proper arrangements for discussion of the Bill. As I hope the hon. Gentleman knows, that is one of the reasons why the Government continue to promote the attractiveness of proper programming of debates: only by such means can we ensure that issues that are rightly of genuine concern to Members can be aired.

Ms Julie Morgan (Cardiff, North)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the impact of the high pound on the car components industry, especially in view of the recent closures and job losses in Wales? Aeroquip, in my constituency, has lost 140 jobs, and Alloy Wheels in Whitchurch—also in my constituency—has lost 250. Both announcements have been made within the last 10 days.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern for her constituents, and for the prosperity of businesses in her constituency. She will know, however, that much depends on the degree to which individual companies are exporting to Europe rather than elsewhere, and that the situation is complex and difficult. She will also know that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor sought to ease the position of the business community through a variety of means in the Budget. Members will have an opportunity to air these matters during the debates on the Finance Bill, to which my hon. Friend no doubt hopes to contribute.

Ms Rosie Winterton (Doncaster, Central)


Madam Speaker

Order. The hon. Lady should not mind what the Opposition are saying. I will deal with them in a moment.

Ms Winterton

Will my right hon. Friend find time for the House to debate whether legislation is now necessary to make kerb crawling an arrestable offence? There are particular areas in my constituency where residents feel extremely threatened by the activities of kerb crawlers and are understandably worried about the safety of their children. Local police have made it clear to me that a change in the law is necessary. Can my right hon. Friend give me an assurance that she will look at the issue seriously?

Mrs. Beckett

I am well aware of the fact that my hon. Friend has long campaigned on that important issue. Kerb crawling causes great distress to families, particularly because of its effect on children. The Government accept that there is a strong argument that a specific power of arrest would assist the police in dealing with the problem. I am not in a position to tell her at present that we are likely to introduce such a provision in the very near future, but we are looking at including it in some of the draft legislation that the Government are considering and hope to publish for consultation in the not-too-distant future.

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley)

Is not the problem with Prime Minister's questions that the Prime Minister does not like to come to the Dispatch Box? Let us go back to having two Prime Minister's Question Times a week—on a Tuesday and a Thursday for 15 minutes each. I was quite happy with that.

We failed to get the Prime Minister to the Dispatch Box to make a statement following his summit with farmers, so is it possible to have a full day's debate on the state of agriculture, which is in the worst crisis for 60 years—indeed, it has been exacerbated during the past three years of the Labour Government? Even post the aid package that was announced, farmers are still reeling and suffering—farmers such as Paul Kenny in my constituency, who cannot make a profit out of farming.

During today's Agriculture questions, aid to pig farming was mentioned. The Leader of the House may not have noticed, but the protest is still taking place in Parliament square. Winnie the pig is still there. If the right hon. Lady cares to come with me after Prime Minister's questions to have a chat with the farmers there, I will hold her hand as we cross the road.

Mrs. Beckett

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, the National Farmers Union has welcomed the package that the Government have announced. I fear that he is nurturing an illusion. There may be only one Winnie the pig, but there is a substantial number of pigs—they are working shifts, I understand—on the demonstration. The hon. Gentleman will be happy to know that it is not one solitary pig being progressively poisoned by fumes in Parliament square. [Interruption.] If they are all called Winnie, I hope that they are all female pigs.

I do not know why the hon. Gentleman keeps making that rather tedious point about the Prime Minister not liking to come to the House. As I have pointed out to the hon. Gentleman on many occasions, the Prime Minister attends Prime Minister's Question Time more frequently than his predecessor. If the hon. Gentleman is saying that he is happy with the way it was before, when the then Prime Minister came less often, that is less than kind to the right hon. Member for Huntingdon (Mr. Major).

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

Apparently, the Home Office is sitting on a report that it commissioned from Professor Paul Weller, which suggests that the next monarch should be crowned by Buddhist priests and representatives of other religions in a ceremony not entirely dissimilar from that which opened the millennium dome. Might we have a statement on those proposals? It seems to some us rather odd that the first commandment seems to have escaped the Government, which contains so many professing Christians.

Mrs. Beckett

I am happy to say that I am entirely unaware of any such report. I am not entirely sure how accurate—if such a report exists—the hon. Gentleman's description of it is. lf, however, it is accurate, perhaps it is a good thing that the Home Office is sitting on it.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

Is my right hon. Friend aware that it is about six weeks since the Northern Ireland Assembly was suspended after the threats by the Ulster Unionists? Will there be a statement soon as to what will happen about the Members who are still being paid? It seems odd to some of us that that Assembly needs to get back to how it was before, yet, at the same time, the Members are drawing the money. It looks to me as though they will continue in that vein for ever unless, at some point, someone says that the Assembly has to start again. What are the conditions for that happening? Will there be a statement on the matter? Are we going to get that Assembly back on the road? If we do not, those Members will continue being paid a salary for not attending, and that will produce only gridlock.

Mrs. Beckett

As my hon. Friend will know, the Government are very anxious indeed to see the institutions begin to work again. I am very mindful, having heard from someone who has been close to some of the negotiations, of what a pleasure it was to hear Members from Northern Ireland begin to argue about matters such as housing and education. We all wish those discussions again to become the focus of political concerns in the Province. I fear, however, that I cannot find time in the near future for a debate on the further implications of the suspension to which my hon. Friend referred. Perhaps he will have a chance to the air the matter at the next Northern Ireland Question Time.

Mr. Owen Paterson (North Shropshire)

Madam Speaker, you probably are not familiar with European Commission document COM (1999) 719 Final, which proposes the establishment of a European food authority and was debated yesterday in European Standing Committee C. The debate was attended by only 15 hon. Members. If the 84 action points in the document's annexe were implemented, it would effectively usurp all British law on food production and agriculture. It would also make redundant the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the recently established Food Standards Agency and much local authority activity.

Yesterday, I pressed the Under-Secretary of State for Health, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Edgbaston (Ms Stuart), three times for a White Paper on the matter to be debated on the Floor of the House. The document's consequences are so momentous that they could effectively result in a programme that is larger than this Session's Queen's Speech. Will the Leader of the House give serious consideration to a full Government White Paper and a full debate on the document on the Floor of the House?

Mrs. Beckett

As I am sure the hon. Gentleman is aware, the preparation of a Government White Paper is not the work of a matter of moments. However, I certainly understand the concern that he expresses, and I shall draw his remarks to the attention of my right hon. Friend. I cannot, however, undertake readily to find time in the near future for such a debate on the Floor of the House.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North)

Could my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on the plans recently announced by the Whitworths Group to close its plant in Warrington, with the loss of approximately 250 jobs? In view of the high-handed way in which that company has behaved, and its failure to recognise trade unions in its Warrington plant, is it not time that we had a debate, with a Minister at the Dispatch Box, so that we could discuss the role of companies that behave more like 19th-century mill owners than modern employers?

Mrs. Beckett

I am certainly sorry to learn of the concerns that my hon. Friend identifies and of the problems that are caused to her constituents. I fear, however, that I cannot undertake to find time in the near future for a debate in the House on the matter. May I, however, again recommend to her the virtues of Westminster Hall, which I believe has doubled the opportunities for Back-Bench Members to raise such issues in an Adjournment debate.

Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East)

Given the uncharacteristically brusque response of the Leader of the House to the important question on parliamentary accountability asked by my right hon. Friend the Member for Fylde (Mr. Jack), I hesitate to ask another question on the subject. [Interruption.] I shall, nevertheless, risk it.

Will the right hon. Lady find time for a statement by the Minister for the Cabinet Office on the role of prime ministerial special envoys who are, of course, unaccountable to Parliament in relation to their security clearances and to briefings that they may have had from either United Kingdom or foreign intelligence services?

Mr. Stephen O'Brien

Lord Levy.

Dr. Lewis

Such a statement would give the House a chance to obtain more information from the Minister than I was able to obtain on Tuesday, when I asked a very pertinent related question of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Neath (Mr. Hain) on Lord Levy.

Mrs. Beckett

Quite properly, the hon. Gentleman and other hon. Members have taken the opportunity to raise the issue of the role of Lord Levy. The Government have made it plain that Lord Levy has occasionally played a valuable role, and that the processes and discussions in which he has occasionally been engaged have been ones that we hope will help to facilitate the cause of peace. I should hope that all hon. Members would support such processes.

Mr. David Winnick (Walsall, North)

Although the twice-weekly Prime Minister's questions may have provided more time for Back Benchers, there is—as my hon. Friend for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) said—a feeling of dissatisfaction over Prime Minister's Question Time now because of the very limited opportunities provided to Back Benchers. Although the Conservatives will make spiteful remarks about the Prime Minister, would it be possible to examine the matter through the usual channels? Far more than half the half-hour is given to the two Front Benches, and time is then given to the leader of the Liberal Democrats. The opportunities for those of us who table questions regularly—and who are lucky if we get into the top four or five more than twice a year—are very limited.

Mrs. Beckett

I understand my hon. Friend's concern. As the record shows, he is entirely correct to say that the concern expressed by the Opposition is more than a little spurious. The Prime Minister has withdrawn from Question Time the supplementary remarks that used to be interspersed between questions, which has created more time. The Prime Minister has answered more questions than his predecessor in the equivalent period of time. Given the time and the number of questions that may be answered, I understand my hon. Friend's concern that Back Benchers do not have as much time as most hon. Members would think desirable. I hope that hon. Members on both sides of the House will take heed of his remarks.

Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham)

Given that it is only two days since the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, the hon. Member for Rossendale and Darwen (Janet Anderson), said explicitly in Westminster Hall that the Government were committed to a not-for-profit lottery—only to be comprehensively contradicted within 48 hours by her boss and by the Leader of the House—is it not essential, under the terms of the ministerial code of conduct and the guidance to Ministers, for that Minister to come to the House without delay and offer a full explanation and apology? Does the Leader of the House acknowledge that, if the Minister for Tourism, Film and Broadcasting does not do that, the suspicion that the Government are zealous lobbyists for Richard Branson, and that they have fatally compromised the independence of the National Lottery Commission, will inevitably gain ground?

Mrs. Beckett

No, I do not think that any reasonable person would draw such a conclusion, nor do I think that there is a need for what the hon. Gentleman suggests. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport made the Government's position perfectly plain in Westminster Hall. She also commented on the Government's welcome for not-for-profit bidders, as well as for bidders who are not not-for-profit, if I may put it that way. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary wrote to the Opposition spokesman setting out the position. The hon. Gentleman has now tabled a parliamentary question, which has been answered. The Government's position is clear and on the record, and the matter has been dealt with.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North)

Following the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Newport, West (Mr. Flynn), can we find time to debate the need for a public inquiry into the management and future of Sellafield, particularly in view of the growing evidence of a culture of institutional falsification, as well as the allegations to which my hon. Friend referred? Can we review the economic, employment and environmental implications of ceasing reprocessing and switching work to decommissioning and safety?

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend calls for an announcement of a public inquiry, and I understand that he is anxious for the many issues surrounding operations at Sellafield to be aired. However, such inquiries take considerable time. If he would like the Government to consider the problems, BNFL to take action within its remit, and the Government and the safety inspectorate to take action within their remit, a public inquiry may not be the fastest course of action. I undertake to draw my hon. Friend's concerns to the attention of relevant Ministers.

Mr. Nigel Beard (Bexleyheath and Crayford)

Can my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on health, and in particular this week's report from the National Institute for Clinical Excellence on hip replacements, which goes a long way towards fulfilling the Government's commitment to abolishing the postcode lottery? That approach could then be contrasted with the approach taken in an article by the hon. Member for Woodspring (Dr. Fox), the shadow Health Secretary, in which he proposed that all hip replacement operations should be private, at a cost of £5,000 each.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is entirely right: the guidance issued by NICE is both authoritative and welcome and is a clear indication of the improvements that we are gradually beginning to make in the health service, although there is much more to do. He is also right to say that that stands in stark contrast to the pronouncements of the Conservative party, whose policy on health seems to target the elderly, as it is predominantly elderly people who are most in need of the operations that the shadow Health Secretary wants to be handled only by the private sector. Tempting though that makes such a debate, I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for it in the near future.

Mr. Gareth R. Thomas (Harrow, West)

I wonder whether my right hon. Friend will consider a debate in Government time on the way in which local authorities use bailiffs. Such a debate would enable the House to consider the rules and procedures that local authorities use when sending out bailiffs and might help to prevent the further incompetent deployment of bailiffs by Westminster city council, which caused considerable distress to my constituent, Mr. Lanning, and his family by sending out bailiffs to collect fines that had already been paid well within the council's required period.

Mrs. Beckett

I am certainly sorry to learn of the distress caused to my hon. Friend's constituent by the actions of Westminster city council, and I understand his concern, but I fear that I cannot undertake to find time for such a debate in the near future. He will be aware that the Local Government Bill is under discussion and proceeding through the House, and it may afford him an opportunity to raise these matters. I believe that the issue of the use of bailiffs is already under review.

Mr. Geraint Davies (Croydon, Central)

Will my right hon. Friend find time for a debate on class sizes? In Croydon, the proportion of five, six and seven-year-olds in classes of more than 30 has fallen from 32 per cent. to 10 per cent. since 1997. I understand that, a year ago, on the "Today" programme, Steven Norris, the Tory mayoral candidate, said that he was concerned that the Conservatives had failed to deliver improvements in public sector education. In that year, the proportion of children in large class sizes has been halved. It is important to have a debate to set the record straight: we have delivered where the Tories have confessed to failure.

Mrs. Beckett

My hon. Friend is right. Not only in Croydon but throughout the country the number of children in very large infant classes has halved. It is generally accepted in the world of education that, as the evidence suggests, class sizes are most crucial in those early years. That is why the Government have focused on that area. However, although such a debate would indeed provide an opportunity to examine the record of both the Conservatives and the Government, I fear that it is yet another attractive opportunity that I shall have to decline for now.